Monthly Archives: April 2010

The April Roundup

I’ve rounded up the books I reviewed in April. They’re organized from highest-rating to lowest-rating for stand-alones and are grouped by series otherwise.

Books I loved and will definitely read again, or books that scored a 5 out of 5:

Books I liked and will probably read again or, books that scored a 4 out of 5:

Books that are alright, or books that scored a 3 out of 5:

Books I’ll probably get rid of, or books that scored a 2 out of 5:

Books I hated, or books that scored a 1 out of 5:

  • None, thank goodness
Weird Factoids: I read 22 Books, totaling 6,425 Pages, and had 335 blog-views.

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Alanna: The First Adventure

Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure (2005 ed). 240 Pages. Simon Pulse. $6.99

Song of the Lioness: Book One

This is one of those books which is older than I am, but is still in print, which is a sure mark of a good story. I originally owned the 1989 paperback, but since it’s in a box somewhere, I’ve got a new copy of the 2005 printing. Every couple years (or sometimes only a few months apart) I re-read this series, and I enjoy it every time.

Alanna and Thom of Trebond- nearly identical twins- are both dissatisfied with the futures their father has chosen for him. Alanna dreams of being a lady knight, not a lady stuck in a convent. Thom wants to be a sorcerer instead of a knight. The ten-year-olds come up with a potentially brilliant plan; they’ll trade places. Alanna will pose as Alan, and Thom will start his sorcerer training at the convent (where young boys learn basic magic).

“Alan” arrives at the palace a few short weeks later, eager to start as a page. Despite being a bit clumsy at first, Alanna proves to be one of the best pages of her year, excelling in nearly all of her lessons and putting in extra hours of training. The other pages- and even some squires- are impressed by “Alan,” who becomes one of Prince Jonathan’s most trusted friends.

Alanna must make several ethical decisions; she hates and fears her magic, but to continue denying it will cost her friend his life. She is haunted by images of a dark city, and somehow feels drawn to it, but knows it is incredibly dangerous. As much as she trusts her friends, is it safe to let any of them know  her secret?

The Song of the Lioness series is one of my favorites, and I really love all of the books set in Tortall. That said, having read Ms. Pierce’s more recent work, it is clear she has really grown as an author since she wrote this book nearly 30 years ago. It deals with some mature themes- Alanna gets her period, and there are some sexual references- but I feel that children can handle this*. It was originally targeted at higher-elementary, I believe.

The characters are fun, but take a long time to develop. Alanna grows up, but it happens in leaps and bounds; months disappear, days are stretched into several chapters, and time does not flow smoothly. However, the mundane does not make a good story, so it’s understandable that the boring, routine days are cut out.

As far as publishing goes, I’m surprised there is not an omnibus edition**; Ms Pierce herself has said that J.K. Rowling taught her that kids will read long books***, so it surprises me that they remain in individual volumes.

The Quick Version:

With a strong female lead, and a plot which starts at the beginning, this book opens the series well. It is not my favorite; I prefer older Alanna, but issues which real girls face are dealt with fairly well. The adventure itself is fun, and at times even a bit scary. The drama of the climax grabs and doesn’t let go until everything is over. It gets a 4/5, because it’s good, but the books later in the series are better.

Want it? Pick it up on Amazon, or get it through Swaptree.

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*I spent a lot of time arguing in a children’s literature class about whether kids can handle this sort of thing. I’m a strong supporter of letting the child decide, and while I could handle this at 8 years old, not every child will be able to. It takes on new meaning when you reach the “young adult” demographic- girls who have experienced puberty are more likely to understand and sympathize with what is going on with Alanna.

** Like the Chronicles of Chrestomanci, which were released in individual volumes and then combined into Omnibus editions.

*** Apparently nobody had considered how much children like bragging about having read a 700+ page book… (Also, on a Harry Potter note, I don’t believe I’ll review them any time soon. I’m still angry about the end.)

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Talking to Dragons

Wrede, Patricia C. Talking to Dragons (1995). 255 Pages. Scholastic. $4.95 

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Book Four (or Book One)

Depending on who you ask, this is either the first book or the last book in the series. If you feel that this is the last book, be aware of spoilers. If you feel that it is the first, welcome to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

Daystar has lived right next to the Enchanted Forest his whole life, but he has never spent much time there. His mother, Cimorene, has drilled two rules into his head since childhood; always be polite, especially to Dragons, and never say yes to an unknown favor. When he is sixteen years old, he enters the Enchanted Forest for the first time.

Armed with a magic sword, and good manners, Daystar is sent on a quest, even if he doesn’t have a clue what he’s supposed to do. He makes the acquaintance of a fire witch, meets a small lizard, and a young dragon, all without figuring out much more than that the King is sleeping in his castle.

Eventually Daystar learns that the sword he is carrying is very important, that Morwen the Witch and Telemain the Magician are both very powerful and very helpful– and know considerably more than he does about his quest– and that his mother was very right in teaching him to always be polite to Dragons.

Eventually, Daystar makes his way to the Castle of the Sleeping King, where he figures out what everyone has been hoping he’d do all along. The book climaxes with an epic battle, and ends on a good note. It resolves the story without ending everything. It’s not exactly “happily ever after” but all the characters are set up to find their ever-afters easily.

The Series as a Whole:

I choose to think of this as the fourth book, because I’ve always read it last. It makes a solid close to a long story, one which has been well written, and is really enjoyable. The appearance and re-appearance of familiar characters makes it feel like one contiguous work, which is nice. Each one has just enough difference from the last that you’re interested, and things are steadily growing off what has already been set up.

As a series opener, it’s fascinating; you start with the end, you know the happily ever after, and so the “What” is solved. Reading the rest of the books is like learning the “Why”, which is really not a bad way to do things. Beginning with the end is a fun way to tell a story.

The series gets an overall score of 5/5.

The Quick Version:

This is one of the first Fantasy series I remember reading, and because of this I know I’m at least a little biased. However, I’ve read it so many times that I nearly have the book memorized and I still enjoy it. This book in particular is good. Daystar makes a great protagonist, and whether you know what’s going on or not, you find yourself rooting for him. It scores a 5/5 for being a great book.

Want to read it? Get it through Amazon or Swaptree.

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For the Love of Pete

Harper, Julia. For the Love of Pete (2009). 400 Pages. Forever. $6.99

“Things finally came to a head between Zoey Addler and Lips of Sin the afternoon he tried to steal her parking space.” With another solid first-line, Julia Harper drags us back into the world of FBI chases and romance. Some of you may remember Dante Torelli from Hot. It’s alright if you don’t though, because this book really stands alone. The references to Hot are there, but they are not key to the story.

Anyway, when the child of a key witness is kidnapped, Special Agent Dante Torelli (a.k.a. Lips of Sin) must find Pete (Zoey’s infant niece) in time for her father to testify on Monday. Of course, as difficult as finding a kidnapped baby in Chicago might have been, that’s not all that’s going on here. Pete is kidnapped from her kidnapper in a robbery-gone-wrong. Dante is framed for murder, and most everyone believes he’s a dirty cop. Zoey refuses to trust him, and will not just go home, or at least anywhere safe. Bullets fly, chases ensue, cat and mouse repeats itself.

Meanwhile, as with Hot, we get other points-of-view. Chapters may focus on Dante, Zoey, Mrs. Gupta & Mrs. Gupta, Neil Senior, and the “Senior FBI Agent”, to name a few. It could get a little confusing, but since it’s in third-person limited, the story stays reasonably clear. As with Hot, I feel that the bad-guy chapters can be a little too much sometimes, even if they are pretty funny (especially those which dealt with the Mrs. Guptas.) The story unfolds in an unexpected way, and the bad guys are defeated in some very surprising ways.

If you are surprised by romance novels featuring romance, do not read this paragraph, as it could spoil the book. If you are not surprised, hilight the text to read “spoilers”. Eventually the romance plot becomes primary; Dante is head over heels for Zoey. There are a few kisses which are badly handled; they act like the second kiss is the first, which it is not. They are equally as shocked by the third. By the time they’re truly involved with each other, you’re rolling your eyes and telling them to get it over with already.</ “spoiler”>

The Quick Version:

With a fun plot, an entertaining cat-and-mouse game, and a brief appearance by Mac, this book is nearly as entertaining as Hot. It does, unfortunately, fall a little short, and has a bit too much of the “uptight, structured man falls for free spirited hippie chick” which is not my favorite plot. It scores a solid 3.5 out of 5. I enjoyed it, but I won’t be re-reading it any time soon.

If you’re still interested, you can get it through Amazon or Swaptree.

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Chalice

McKinley, Robin. Chalice (2009). 272 Pages. Ace. $7.99

I’ve read every single book Robin McKinley has ever written, and I’ve read some of them so many times that they have fallen apart and had to be replaced. Some, I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed more than others. Chalice is midddling; it’s not my favorite of her books, but it is good.

To explain the world a little bit, there is an Overlord who rules the region, like a King. The region has been broken up into demesnes*, and each demesne has a Master- the lord of the estate- and his Circle which is made up of various people who have different skills and responsibilities. Mirasol- our protagonist- was a simple beekeeper and woodsman until she had to step into the role of the Chalice for an ailing demesne. Too many years of a bad Master, a broken Circle, and a weak Chalice have left the land hurting.

Mirasol isn’t quite sure what she is expected to do as Chalice- she never had an apprenticeship, and acquired the job after the last Chalice died- but she’s learning from the books she can find, and trying to do what she can. As a beekeeper, she was in the unique position to become the only Chalice whose power works through honey, something which makes her feel even more inadequate and unprepared.

There is also the Master, a priest of fire who has lost a lot of his humanity through his priesthood. As the younger brother of the previous Master, he is the next to ascend through bloodlines, but his position as a fire priest has the entire population of the demesne worried. The Master himself is unsure about himself or his ability to help, but he loves the land, and is trying to keep it whole.

Mirasol and the Master both love their home, and want to save the land. Together, they hope to protect the Willowlands, repair the damage done to it, and perhaps find themselves in the process.

This book reads like a fairytale- something Ms McKinley works well with- and has the feeling of high-fantasy which marks all of her work. Chalice, like so many of her other books feels like it is in three parts; the introduction, the rising, and the climax. While the plot remains the same through all three, there are very different feelings from one part to the next. It stays continuous enough that it feels like a single book, which is key.

The Quick Version:

Mirasol is the sort of protagonist who works well for a world so alien to us. She is new enough to her role that she is still learning, which allows the reader to learn with her. She is also the sort of character you find yourself rooting for, and really liking. The Master as well is a very sympathetic character; you want to like him as much as Mirasol wants to like him. The plot and the world are incredibly alien to our own, which means that they are sometimes very hard to understand, but it is mostly explained well. The book is not suspenseful, and does not grab you so you can not put it down, but it is a nice, relaxing read. It gets a 4 out of 5 (perhaps my most common rating) because it is good, but it is not her best book.

I’m sure you’ll want to read it; find it on Amazon, or Swaptree.

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* I was confused by “demesne” when I first came across it. It is a large estate, typically controlled by nobles. It’s not a common word, but it works here.

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Calling on Dragons

Wrede, Patricia C. Calling on Dragons (1994). 244 Pages. Scholastic. $3.95*

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Book Three

Because this is the third book in a series, there are very likely to be spoilers for the first two books. Proceed with caution.

It is purely by accident that King Mendanbar discovers that  his sword has been stolen by wizards, allowing them to once again steal the forest’s magic. The bold theft is what will lead our familiar (and not-so-familiar) cast on yet another adventure to save the forest. With the sword out of the Enchanted Forest, however, Mendanbar must remain at home to be the focus of the protection spell. This means that Cimorene must lead the party, and Mendanbar is by no means happy about it.

In Calling on Dragons we see their adventures from Morwen’s point of view, which means that we get to hear what her cats are actually saying for the first time. They lend a comedic edge to the book which it would otherwise have been missing. (And it gives us some insight into cat romance). Killer, the six foot tall talking blue donkey-rabbit who blunders into more and more difficult and stupid situations. He makes things funny, but can at times be very annoying.

We see a lot more of the world outside the Enchanted Forest or Mountains of Morning, mostly due to the adventure.  Telemain speaks in magical technical gibberish, and Kazul stops him. Morwen is practical, Cimorene equally so. Killer is silly, and the cats are funny. There is also a very entertaining scene with a cranky magic mirror. This book, like the others, will have you laughing and enjoying yourself.

The Quick Version:

As I have said on other books which are the third in the series; it’s more of a bridge than a stand-alone book. The story begins, but does not conclude, and has a rather severe cliffhanger at the end. It is still good, is still very entertaining, and in a lot of ways is my favorite book in the series. It gets a 4.5 out of 5 because of the cliffhanger.

If you want to read it, pick it up on Amazon or though Swaptree.

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* This is the price on the old edition which I received used.

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Austenland

Hale, Shannon. Austenland: A Novel (2007). 193 Pages. Bloomsbury. $19.95

Thirty-three year-old Jane Hayes– like many women– has an unhealthy obsession with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberly, specifically the version of him portrayed by the fabulous Colin Firth*. When her Great-Aunt Carolyn dies and leaves her a trip to the Austen-themed Pembrook Park, Jane views it as a chance to excise her obsession through gluttony.

When she arrives at Pembrook Park, she is versed in the rules of the era, stripped of all traces of the modern world, corseted, and sent to the manor** to live with historical accuracy (or something resembling it) for three full weeks. While she is at the manor, she is to be known as Miss Jane Erstwhile, and she is to behave like a proper lady. Also at the manor are Miss Charming and Miss Heartwright, who are both valued, repeat customers– something Jane will never be, due to her financial situation. For the enjoyment of the ladies, gorgeous gentlemen have been gathered; the Darcy-esque Mr Nobley, the handsome Colonel Andrews, and the dashing Captain East.

It takes some time for Jane to get over the silliness of the whole experience (as well as the difficulty she faces as the least affluent and thus least desirable guest).Despite this, Jane finds herself drawn to both the very 21st-century Martin the gardener (who shows her that it is possible to not compare every man to Mr Darcy), as well as Mr Nobley who embodies everything Austen’s books have brought her to desire. As she relaxes into the game, she finds her desires changing, allowing her to leave Pembrook Park as a new Jane.

Austenland is cute, but not deep. Jane is the sort of character who draws you in with her clumsy charm, and keeps you rooting for her as she stumbles along the path toward her goal. She manages to both fumble completely, and still wind up happy at the end. (And, big surprise, she gets the guy- though I won’t say which one). I feel like the end of the book would have been better if she had been more self-reliant, instead of wrapping up with a romance, and as much as I love romance, it does pain me to admit that it didn’t quite work right here.

The Quick Version:

As a whole, I feel that while this book was entertaining (they all are, to some degree), and I liked Jane, the story could have been better. It kept me busy for a few hours, and did manage to slip in some Austen humor. The romance is (mostly) believable, and does work, though the end feels a bit too much like a happily-ever-after. It gets a 3 out of 5.

Get it through Amazon or Swaptree.

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* Many Pride and Prejudice fans are polarized, and their Mr Darcy is either Firth or Macfayden. (Which one is yours?)

** Sounding familiar?

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Hot

Harper, Julia*. Hot (2008). 380 Pages. Grand Central. $6.99

Have you ever made the mistake of starting a brand new book right before bed, only to realize as you close the book that you’ve been reading all night, and the sun is rising? Harper’s book grabs you from the first line. “In Turner Hastings’ opinion, the bank robbery didn’t go truly bad until Yoda shot out the skylight.” From the dramatic first line until you close the book, you’ll be hooked.

When Special Agent John MacKinnon gets called in to investigate a bank robbery in small-town Winosha, Wisconsin, he expects an open-and-shut case. It isn’t until he stumbles across footage of  bank-teller and local librarian Turner Hastings ripping off her boss’s safety deposit box and smirking at the camera that he realizes there is more going on than meets the eye. He finds himself intrigued by the woman, and growing more enthralled by her with each passing day.

Having secured the contents of the bank president’s safety deposit box and fled, Turner begins the cat-and-mouse game which is the backbone of the story. She is not an experienced criminal though, so when her phone rings, she answers it and finds herself talking to MacKinnon. At first, he is professional, trying to capture his quarry by convincing her to come in, but slowly their conversations become more personal. He teases Turner’s story out of her; she’s seeking revenge for the framing of her late Uncle Rusty, and needs evidence to prove her case.

When a hit-man is hired to get rid of Turner, MacKinnon finds himself wanting to protect her more than he wants to arrest her, which makes the whole situation more difficult for him. The two grow closer and closer to each other, until the story climaxes with a few climaxes.

The writing is top-notch. I didn’t roll my eyes over stupidity (very often), or plot holes, or badly used adjectives. The mystery is more of a cat-and-mouse or keystone cops thing, maybe a bit of both combined. There are of course a few sex scenes, this is a romance, and this isn’t a prudish publisher. They’re very detailed, perhaps a little too detailed. The biggest issue is with the scenes with the escaping robbers- they’re a bit too stupid, and while they’re meant to be funny, they’re really not necessary to the story. You can skip the chapters without missing anything at all.

The characters are human; John and Turner both have their pasts, and they’ve got their futures. They develop through the book, and really learn to step outside their respective boxes. Other characters grow less, but that’s not always a bad thing. If every character is growing, the book can be overwhelming. (Anyone who’s ever read the Kushiel series knows how overwhelming too much character development can be.)

The Quick Version:

The funny parts are genuinely funny, the chase scenes enthralling, the characters actually develop and are slowly revealed. The dialog is brilliant, and as a whole, this book is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It gets a 5 out of 5.

Want to read it? Get it on Amazon or through Swaptree.

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*Julia Harper is a nom de plume** for Elizabeth Hoyt.

** I think it’s silly to have multiple pen-names*** just because you’re genre-crossing. I realize that authors can feel constrained by a genre, but they should be able to branch out without using a whole new name

*** And what is the point in having multiple pseudonyms for different genres if you link to them on your authorial website? I mean, really.

If you haven’t noticed, I do enjoy footnotes. I just wish I could anchor them properly.

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Karma Girl

Estep, Jennifer. Karma Girl (2006). 360 Pages. Penguin. $14.00

I picked this one up on clearance at Borders, and thought “why not, for $2.99, who cares if it’s bad?” It wasn’t amazing, but it was interesting, and it kept me reading, which is key. I did not find myself laughing, but I was drawn in by the plot, and it invaded my brain to the extent that I found myself thinking about it while I was not reading.

Set in a superhero universe, where every town has its own villain and superhero*, Karma Girl is about Carmen Cole, and the fury of a woman scorned.

Once upon a time, Carmen was getting married and, concerned for the feelings of her husband-to-be, she went to speak with him before the ceremony. Unfortunately, she walked in on her fiancée and her best friend banging. To make matters worse, their spandex was revealed, showing her fiancée to be a superhero and her best friend to be the town’s villain and his nemesis. Carmen, journalist that she is, snapped some pictures and published them, unmasking her first heroes.

This is the start of the next part of Carmen’s life. She enters a town, unmasks their hero and villain, and moves on, leaving a path of destruction and confusion behind her. This continues until she reaches Bigtime, New York (i.e. Metropolis, New York City, Gotham City et al.) where the Fearless Five fight the Terrible Triad. Things happen, and there is a lot I cannot reveal without spoiling things. Suffice it to say that Carmen is definitely well behind the reader when it comes to realizing identities. Alliterative names are a dead giveaway, and a seeming joke on the genre.

So anyway, our heroes (the Fearless Five) are Striker, Tornado, Fiera (star of her own novel), Mr. Sage, and Hermit, all of whom have some backstory revealed. The villains (the Terrible Triad) are Malefica, Frost, and Scorpion, none of whom get any backstory revealed. Carmen gets forcibly yanked into the Triad’s long, drawn out, and horribly convoluted plot (perhaps the longest and most convoluted I have ever had to deal with). The “twist” is not a good one, as it is not very twist-y.

As far as the story goes, Carmen is a little too stubborn, a little too whiny, a little too obsessed with karma. She’s determined to sabotage herself, and is still bitter at her ex-fiancée three years later. She’s too determined to continue her pity party, even as it becomes increasingly obvious to everyone but her that the Love Interest is interested. Due to the genre, I won’t even bother expanding on this, except to say that it has far more stupid obstacles thrown in its way than are necessary. Carmen herself drags out the romance by being intentionally dense and denying everything obnoxiously. Striker himself is a sad analog of the badass misanthropic anti-hero who goes all mushy and soft on us very early on.

The thing which has doomed this book though, has really and truly made it take a nosedive is that attempted rape is the device upon which the romance hinges. She nearly gets raped, Striker saves her, he goes all mushy and interested, and she goes all “ooh you stopped them from raping me, now I’m going to jump your bones.” She’s really fucked up from this attempt for all of a day, and then she’s too busy being hot for Striker. Ugh.

The Quick Version:

Light, reasonably enjoyable, and vaguely resembling*** an actual superhero story. It attempts to make fun of the superhero genre, which might have been more successful had the author done a bit more research on her genre. Aside from the terrible romance plot device (see above), the book is alright. It scores a 3 out of 5. Mostly because if you set aside the whining and the angst and the poor-me and the stupid bits, you have a short story about a pretty kickass set of superheros.

Want to read it? Get it on Amazon or though Swaptree.

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*Like The Incredibles, or Soon I Will Be Invincible** this world has, and believes in superheros.

**I will review this one soon

*** I mean cut apart, mangled a bit, and sort of mashed back together.

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Searching for Dragons

Wrede, Patricia C. Searching for Dragons (1992). 242 Pages. Scholastic. $4.99

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Book Two

Because this is the second book in a series, there are very likely spoilers to the first book. Proceed with caution.

Mendanbar is an unconventional King, which is good, because the Enchanted Forest is an unconventional kingdom. He tries to be active, and take part in his kingdom, instead of getting caught up by formal events like his father, the previous king. One day, while he is out on one of his unconventional walks, he finds a vast dead region in the forest, and dragon scales scattered around the scene. Some confusion and consternation leads him to Morwen, who sends him on to talk to King Kazul.

When Mendanbar gets to King Kazul’s caves in the Mountains of Morning, he finds Cimorene, who admits that Kazul is missing. This is where the title comes into play, as they go on a search for Kazul which leads them on quite an adventure. They meet giants (one of whom Mendanbar advises to leave his current rampaging business and go into consulting), ride a dysfunctional carpet, meet Rumplestiltskin’s grandson (Herman the dwarf), and finally come across Telemain the Magician.

With some help from Telemain and Morwen, Cimorene and Mendanbar manage to get to the root of their problem and locate the missing King Kazul. I’ll give a hint about the end; there are wizards involved. Everything wraps up reasonably well, leaving some room for the adventure which is sure to come in the third book.

The Quick Version:

With nearly as many laughs as Dealing with Dragons, you will find Searching for Dragons to be an enjoyable book. It is targeted toward children, but as with the first book (and the rest of the series) it remains enjoyable as long as you are willing to have a sense of humor about your reading. The ending is predictable (which is fine by me, really), but this book feels like it is missing something which the first book has. I like Mendanbar a lot, but he just seems too clueless about magic at times. The book scores a 4.5 out of 5.

Pick it up from Amazon or Swaptree.

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