Things I Liked – December 2018

Welcome back to another edition of Things I Liked, and gosh don’t the months go by quickly? On the other hand, this is the third instalment of this series, which means I’ve actually stuck to it for far longer than I have basically anything else except Hugh Grant. Go me.

Anyway, here’s stuff I liked in December.

The Holiday Period

I’m not really a massive fan of huge public celebrations. But it’s hard not to get caught up in the general air of harmless and directionless cheerfulness that attends the holiday season. It’s just kind of nice to have pretty lights everywhere when it’s otherwise just cold and dark and miserable. Also I’m a big fan of long periods of time off work. And there’s something about this particular long period of time off work that feels doubly permissive. I’m usually the sort of person who spends at least half my holiday fretting about all the stuff I need to be getting done before I once again have zero time, but the thing about Christmas is that you have complete licence to say “well, it’s Christmas” when you’re deciding to do your taxes later, put off the cleaning, or buy an extra box of Ferrero Rocher.

So, least controversial opinion I’ve probably ever had. Christmas is good. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday period too.

My Planner

I wrote in my planner that I should write about my planner in the Things I Liked article that I also wrote down that I had to write in my planner. Then I wrote a whole article about my planner that was on a different list in a different part of my planner. Point is, I really love my planner and you can read all my about it here.

An Article by Heather Alexandra

A couple of days ago one of Kotaku’s staff writers published this piece about going back to the Star Wars MMO after years of absence. It’s a kind of melancholy, hopeful article about MMOs as both digital and emotional spaces, and it got me right in the feels because it touches on exactly the sort of ideas that led me to write Looking For Group. And now I feel really awkward because I’m worried that it looks like I’m using somebody else’s work to plug my back catalogue (available on iTunes). But mostly for me it was that thing that Alan Bennett talks about The History Boys when you read something that somebody else has written and it articulates so perfectly an experience you thought was private to you. Again, I don’t want to be talking too much about myself here—although, y’know what, screw it, it’s my blog—but while LFG has never been one of my most popular books it’s the one that seems to have inspired that Alan Bennett reaction in other people. I think because it’s about something so specific that’s very strongly recognisable to those who have invested in it, but seldom gets talked about. So, in a weird way, reading Heather’s article closed that loop for me because it said to me what I hope LFG says to other people.

Ferrero Rocher

I don’t even know if you have these in America, and if you do they’re probably called something like Jed’s Crunchy Nutballs. But they’re kind of chocolates with delusions of grandeur—famously advertised in the 80s as the kind of thing you would literally serve at an Embassy Ball, specifically, with the line “the Ambassador’s receptions are noted in society for their host’s exquisite taste, which captivates his guests”. And this is something you can buy from Sainsbury’s for a fiver.

They are, in all honesty, quite nice – being a hazelnut, in squidgy chocolate, surrounded by wafer (in the 80s, nothing was classier than wafer), coated in less squidgy chocolate, with nuts in. But they look rubbish, since they’re knobbly balls wrapped in gold foil, and you would in no way serve them to foreign dignitaries. And, if you did, they would certainly not reply “Monsieur, with zis rocher you are really spoiling us.”

But for some reason I really enjoy them at Christmas, which is the only time of year I ever get them.

Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christies for the BBC

For the past four years, which basically makes it a beloved and eternal tradition, every Christmas the BBC has commissioned a writer called Sarah Phelps to produce a modern adaption of a classic Agatha Christie story. So far, two of them have been quite obscure (Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence), one has been an iconic standalone (And Then There Were None), and the most recent is both iconic and an actual Poirot (The ABC Murders). What they have in common, beyond their source, is that they’re kind of edgy, moody adaptations that are all about post-war anxiety and its very real parallels with modern social problems around which an Agatha Christie is stitched very, very loosely.

I said that these adaptations were becoming a beloved Christmas tradition when it might more accurate to say that it’s becoming a beloved Christmas tradition for the BBC to put out a new Sarah Phelps adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel and for the internet to lose its fucking shit. The thing is that A Crizzle was very much a mystery writer in the classic puzzle box mould. Your only duty when reading an Agatha Christie is to work out which of the details that she deliberately put into the book are clues and thereby determine which of the often cipher-like characters you are being told committed the murder. The classic mystery novel is almost like a cryptic crossword: it has its own set of rules and principles, wholly divorced from anything else, and fans engage with it as a purely intellectual exercise.  The other thing is, that Sarah Phelps has zero interest in that kind of story and, instead, wants to make a TV drama with characters and themes.

And, to an extent, you can do both, because the clue stuff has already been done, and there isn’t much work for an adaptor to do there, so putting your time and effort into telling an actual story that’s relevant to a modern audience is probably a good call. But, of course, there is another perspective which TV tropes helpfully summarises as “they changed it, and now it sucks.” If I was feeling self-servingly high-minded I’d say that which side of the fence you come on is primarily a factor of your personal philosophy of adaptation, and whether you believe that translating a work to a new medium should be an inherently conservative or an inherently transformative process. If I’m being honesty with myself, I suspect it has at least as much to do with how much you like the original.

Last year’s production (Ordeal by Innocence) was especially controversial because Phelps didn’t just add a bunch of themes that weren’t in the book, she completely changed who the murderer was. And while on an abstract level I could understand that changing who the killer is in a genre where that’s literally the whole point should probably be kind of taboo (it strays perilously close to those 19th century versions of Shakespeare where people don’t die in the tragedies) I thought it worked fine as a drama and, when I Wikipedia-ed the original ending, I was really glad they hadn’t gone with it as it was kind of shit.

This year’s mystery is the ABC Murders but because it’s kind of what this series does they’ve added a whole bunch of slightly odd commentary about immigration. It’s a Poirot and Poirot’s backstory has always been that he’s a Belgian policeman who came to live in England after the war (which from Christie’s perspective and, I strongly suspect from the perspective of 1920s England, was super not a big deal) and the story seems to want to be as much about Poirot’s experience as a refugee as about the murders. And this is where I have to accept that my highfalutin belief in the transformative nature of adaptation butts up against the fact that I kind of like Poirot.

I mean, I’m incredibly here for John Malkovitch’s performance as slightly past-it, somewhat tormented Hercule Poirot and I actually think alternative interpretations of iconic detectives can be quite powerful (after all, people have been doing what they like with Sherlock Holmes since Conan Doyle gave them explicit permission to do so in exactly those words). And I even think that the fact that Poirot is an immigrant (who, as we know from Hamilton, get the job done) is an interesting element of his character that I’ve never seen explored before. It’s just that, particularly given where we are right now, it seems to be really, really, really pointedly about Brexit. Like to the extent I’m beginning to find it distracting. And while all the other adaptations have had slightly specious themes in them that weren’t from the original book, they also didn’t seem quite so ripped from the headlines or tacked on. Because, y’know, I’m upset about Brexit too. And I can actually recognise the value of trying to tell a story the re-appropriates the War (which is often used to prop up quite parochialist, quite little-Englandist ideas about Britain standing alone against the world) as a story about the importance of international cooperation and strong ties to Europe. I just don’t think it fits with Poirot. And I suppose if I’m being objective that’s kind of what all of the other complaints have been about as well. It’s just here, because I know the source material better, and because I have such strong sense that it is supposed to be a baffling mystery about a serial killer, not a searing indictment of a culture that grows increasingly hostile to foreigners, that it feels really jarring to me.

Um. I appreciate that this is supposed to be the things I’m enjoying article, and I do actually love the Sarah Phelps Christies, and not only am I enjoying the ABC Murders so much that I watched it live (I know, what is this, 1874?) but I also intend to re-binge the last three as well, and John Malkovitch is great as sad, old Poirot, it’s just this one, for me, works less well than the others. And apparently whether I think something is working or not has less impact than I’d have thought it would about whether or not I enjoy it.

And that’s it for December. As ever, I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. If you’d enjoy telling me. If not, then don’t.

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42 Responses to Things I Liked – December 2018

  1. ancientreader says:

    Ohhhhhhh, so you like Ferrero Rocher, do you? Then I hope you’ve seen this:

    I’m not generally a fan of pranks, but this one is genius and I don’t think it’s mean-spirited the way pranks so often are.

  2. Cristina says:

    I’ve plunged straight into the third instalment of Things You Liked in *** and – as usual – I loved it!
    And I swear to the spirit of chocolate pralines that about three years ago I happened to attend a reception at the Italian Embassy in Copenhagen (long story) and at the entrance I saw an enormous crystal bowl full of Ferrero Rocher! Either the staff never watched TV ads in the 1980s or they’re one hilariously postmodern/self-referential bunch of people. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to sneak a picture of the bowl: one of the biggest regrets I have.
    I wish you to enjoy all the directionless merriment of the period and best of luck for when you’ll have zero time again! X

    • Ahhh, thank you. So happy you enjoyed the post.

      And, oh my God, Ferrero Rocher at a legit Embassy event? That’s the most delightful thing I’ve ever heard – I’m going to assume they were deliberately playing into it, because that makes it even better.

      • Rocío says:

        I can confirm that Ferrero Rochers have become an ironic referent for embassy staff because of that badly dubbed advert. It has definitely become a cross-country cultural referent.
        It’ been a while since I’ve been attached to an embassy (and I was only an intern) but I’ve been told that the previous US ambassador to the UK occasionally served Ferrero Rochers ironically.
        People ALWAYS wanted to know if they served Ferrero Rochers. Like that was literally the most popular question. Not ‘did you meet any heads of state?’ or ‘were there any spies?’ but ‘WERE THERE GOLDEN PYRAMIDS OF CHOCOLATES’. I know it was meant in zest. But now it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy 😀

  3. Ellie says:

    We get the ads for Ferrero Rocher on TV here all the time but I haven’t tried them yet. Haven’t seen them in the shop maybe, idk? But I do indulge in Raffaello Rocher which is the only while chocolate I like (it must be the coconut though 🙂 and Lindt as a self reward at this time of the year.
    Enjoy the remaining time off work!

    • Oh, I’ve had the white ones as well – I’m not the biggest fan of white chocolate, and to be honest they’re a little sweet. But I *can* eat them, which is probably testament to something, because normally I am not here for white chocolate in any form. They also do a dark chocolate version, but it’s disappointing.

      • Ellie says:

        White chocolate is no real chocolate and noone can convince me otherwise, not e even the Rafaellos which I quite like 🙂
        Dark Lindt chocolate with orange is my favourite.

  4. Ros says:

    OMG. That Heather Alexandra article made me cry- and I don’t even play MMOs. The thought of her wandering around her old haunts, seeing them empty and changed, friends all gone… *wailing here*…

    Things I enjoyed in December actually included rereading Looking For Group, which at the risk of repeating myself (from twitter, fangirling email and GR), I really love. In fact, I was moved to write my first ever book review on Goodreads about it afterwards- quite a big deal for me as I count myself as a sciency type, not a writing cove. Anyway, I just wanted to support the view that you dont have to play MMOs to enjoy LFG. Especially if you have a soft spot for nerdy teenagers. And how many novels teach you a whole new language? I can talk to my sons now lol. I call that a bargain 😉

    Also, I completely lost the plot after the planner blog, fell into the newly discovered world of plannerporn and splurged on real-life stationery. Washi tape and lovely coloured pens arrived today. Happy me. PassionPlanner on its way from the US via expedited delivery (£££!!!) but I NEED it for New Year. I’ve been thinking about doing a blog for more than 3 years now, but just haven’t got over myself and therefore round to it. The idea would be to critically appraise medical evidence from research papers on nutrition and mental health, then translate it into language Joe Bloggs can understand. Because the popular press just accepts press releases from The Lancet et al and turns them into dramatic headlines to make people buy their bloody paper, and misleads the whole country. And it makes me wild. Its not as entertaining as the HughGrantathon, but anyway. If it gets done in 2019 because now I have a paper planner , washi tape and stickers (including ranty demotivational ones <3) I will have to credit you.
    One of the best things about December is that it means my annus horribilis is coming to an end. It has been a pants year and I will be glad to see the back of it. Bring on 2019!

    • Yes, it was a great article – she’s one of my favourite video-game writers, to be honest. Her approach to games resonates with mine, but that piece in particular *presses heart*.

      And thank you again for your kind words about LFG (and I’m sorry to have been slow replying to your email, I’m a bit behind of the holiday period). I think my take has always been ‘you don’t have to intimately familiar with MMOs to read this, but it helps.’ I guess it was important to me that the primary intended audience be nerds (much like the primary intended audience of my queer books is queer people), rather than people who want to read books about nerds. Which is not to say the second category of people aren’t entirely welcome and, indeed, necessary–but sometimes it’s nice to be able to write a book directly for the people it’s about.

      So happy to hear you found a planner brand that suited you. It was one of the ‘if not EC then what’ planners I considered, before deciding to just cough up for the money on EC and see how it went. I also am big into washi tape and stickers – I think it makes looking at your planner both less intimating and more appealing, so you’re more likely to use it. Good luck with the blog. That sounds like an amazing project for 2019.

    • Hedvig says:

      I love reading what Alexis has to say. But I sure do enjoy what the rest of you have to say too. This blog may become my new favorite book.

      As for me, had everyone here heard of and read the work of JC Andrijeski?

  5. Gillian says:

    Ferrero Rocher, Christmas and my gran are inextricably linked in my mind. These are all good memories, but I don’t think I’ve had one of those delicately crunchy balls in ages. They did seem awfully fancy at the time, though, with all that gold foil wrap. We were *so* easily impressed in the 80’s.

    As to my December enjoyments, my faves include watching A Christmas Carol (the one with Alistair Sim) on Christmas eve, drinking Bailey’s by the lights of the Christmas tree, eating ALL the chocolate that comes into our house, and luxuriating in a few days of R&R. Bliss.

    • On the topic of being easily impressed in the 80s, for me the impressive bit was the clear plastic box. They did have that in the 80s, didn’t they? It was the chocolate equivalent of the crystal casket for Snow White (as I saw it depicted in a Ladybird book). The robustness of the plastic made me feel it would last, unlike the packaging for chocolate oranges.

      Hmm. Weren’t Swatch watches also the rage then? The kind with clear fronts so you could see the parts going round. Maybe there was a collective feeling that clear plastic was impressive. As opposed to being excessive packaging, which is probably how lots of people would feel about it now.

  6. Kayleigh says:

    Yeah I think ABC Murders is going OK. But I have to disagree with you on Ordeal By Innocence. There is just no way Agatha (deserted wife) would have written a story where wife no.1 is killed by husband in order to marry wife no.2. So while the Sarah Phelps version might have been a reasonable (if derivative) story by itself, calling it “Agatha Christie’s Ordeal By Innocence” should have been actionable. But they paid her grandson tons of money not to object, so what can the rest of us do?

    • I tend to think that what the original author would or wouldn’t have done is a slightly misleading approach to take here, to be honest. I mean, Baz Luhrmann called his movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Francis Ford Coppola called his Bram Stoker’s Dracula but both films are so divorced from the context in which the original texts were written that it’s kind of meaningless to ask whether the authors actually would have approved of the creative decisions involved.

      And obviously Christie is more recent than Shakespeare or Stoker, although not actually much more recent than Stoker when you stop and think about it (it’s weird, but we sort of forget that the early 20th century is almost as long ago as the late 19th) but I think extrapolating opinions she might have had about features of adaptations based on elements of her biography is very much a game that anyone can play. One of Sarah Phelps first interviews about the controversies surrounding every adaptation she’s ever made talks about the fact that she believes her inclusion of sex and explicit drug use is something Christie would have approved because of various details of her personal life. But, to me, it’s not a sensible way to justify or criticise that kind of artistic decision.

  7. Kamala says:

    I remember seeing what seemed like years or Ferrero Rocher commercials as a kid. So exciting! So gold! So disappointing when I finally had one! I expected them to be much more dense. Instead they were a slightly lumpy puff of air.

    I <3 LFG. I was thinking recently about ways a narrator could read it without giving away who the characters were until identifying features were mentioned. Then each character could light up like the toys in the Nutcracker.

    • When I eventually got to eat one, I was quite disappointed too. So I made up for it by making it a challenge to try to eat just one layer at a time….

    • Maybe because I first had one when I was growing up, when I *genuinely* believed they were incredibly sophisticated (also, so expensive we were only allowed, like, one a day from the box) … I have never been disappointed in Ferrero Rocher. I recognise rationally they’re sort of nonsense but apparently, when it comes to these particular chocolates, I’m tasting with my emotions. Also I do find them pretty dense – because of the nut and the chocolate squidge that surrounds it.

      I think LFG would be borderline impossible to produce in audio, I’m afraid. I’ve thought about it but … yikes.

      • Kamala says:

        I was thinking that initially all conversation could be read in Drew’s voice – he’s reading to himself. Or maybe there would be character voices but filtered through Drew’s voice and thoughts. Then, once he actually hears the voices or learns something (physical? For lack of a better word) about them, their voices would become independent of Drew.

        Yeah, I don’t know how well that would work in reality.

        I do so love audiobooks though.

        (This is seriously not meant to be any sort of hint or anything. I don’t want to hint hint nudge nudge or make any author feel pressure or guilt.)

  8. Zee says:

    We definitely have Ferrero Rocher in the States. You have to remember that anything sold in the US that markets itself as classy has to pretend to be European, whether it is or not. (Although hipster culture is finally breaking this down with craft beer, thank God.) (Probably still racist tho, blah.)

    I read LFG for the first time this month, and had that feeling, and messaged a boyfriend emeritus to tell him about it. I’ve never played an MMO because I lose enough hours to less intrinsically addictive games, but the play between IC and OOC relationships and the arguments about whether your friendship is real hit home. Also I moved away from my hometown a year ago so all my friends are online now, and oof. It’s like that book is a friend on its own.

    I keep being afraid to read your books because my reactions to them are so complicated, and that one was the worst: what if you didn’t Get It? But I finally read it, and it was wonderful.

  9. Judith says:

    Things I liked in 2018: 2018 was the year i stumbled across two exceptional writers: Alexis Hall, and later in the year KJ Charles. Both these writers have brought me great joy. Here’s to 2019 and lots more things to like!

  10. Jamie R Disterhaupt says:

    “Jed’s Crunchy Nutballs.” MMMMMMURICA!!!

  11. Sophie says:

    I *always* would get a box of Ferrero Rocher from my grandma, and so they have remained a Christmas fixture for me, too. And the only way to eat them is layer by layer, the Nutella core being the ultimate reward. Great. Now I want a box

  12. Rocío says:

    I’ve yet to watch The ABC Murderers but I’ve enjoyed the Sarah Phelps adaptions so far. They are so gritty though. I suspect that we will look back at them in about ten years time and think ‘could this be anymore more 2010s?’ If it doesn’t contain a scene of a funeral in the rain, was it really filmed in this decade?
    I understand that each era is going to project its own issues on the stories it chooses to retell. Storytelling is such a powerful tool for engaging emotionally with people, so right now there’s going to be a lot of #metoo, Brexit or references to the wall.
    But when did bleak become the default narrative mode? I’m not sure how I feel about always adding an extra layer of crunchy grit, or how Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt became the soundtrack for every edgy trailer. Was the current bleak wave popularized by the success of Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)? Because that Batman was so bleaky bleak it made every previous version look like a Christmas panto. I worry that the continued ubiquity of bleak contributes to equating authenticity with suffering. I mean, kittens, sunshine and Ferrero Rochers are also part of real life, yet they are rarely described as ‘authentic’.
    Also the past is quite bleak anyway. Every Jane Austen novel is about marriage as the only financial guarantee for most women. I don’t need moody lighting or a an acapella version of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to really bring home this point.
    Hope you’re enjoying your break! I’m currently reading Looking for Group after finishing the Spires series. Your versatility and emotional eloquence continues to astonish me 🙂

    • Have seen the final part of the ABC Murders, to me that’s the least successful of them, but I don’t know what extent that’s because it is (the pacing, in particular, seems way off – the first two episodes taking a moody forever and the final one rushing past like a late-running train) and to what extent, as I wrote in the post, I’m more familiar with it and, therefore, the liberties it takes seem less justified to me personally. I mean, there’s a big reveal about who Poirot “really” is/was that I felt contributed exactly zero either to the themes of the story or to his character. So I’m a bit like … ehhhh. I will, however, still enthusiastically re-watch the others.

      I don’t know if bleak is particularly “in” right now (although it very well might be) but I think it’s always been in the case that bleak is automatically associated with maturity and integrity and artistic blah blah blah. Whereas lighter themed pieces of work are shallow mindless fluff or escapism-hungry idiots. This is obviously nonsense because constructing effective fluff is *just* as artistically demanding as constructing gritty realism but … yeah … for some reason there’s a huge cultural drive to diminish art that makes us feel good and exalt art that’s miserable for the sake of it.

      I’m so happy to hear you’re enjoying LFG. And thank you so much for the kind words about my writing 🙂

      • Rocío says:

        Yes, there’s definitely this deeply ingrained cultural axiom that denigrates fluffy stuff and exalts gritty realism as super authentic and a superior artistic mode full stop. And I’m so sorry that romance writers have to contend with this prejudice. It must be so tiring. I don’t know why HEAs are seen as less realistic when all fiction is a self-selective slice of reality. The ‘authentic’ thing would be to not give the reader closure because life doesn’t ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

        And now I really have to watch The ABC Murders, although that would mean not finishing LFG tonight…

  13. Anne says:

    Stuff I liked in December…well…of course there’s the Christmas lights on peoples’ houses — think ‘Griswolds’…Of course we don’t actually put them up at my house — I just marvel at my neighbors’ very extensive efforts.

    Other Christmas enjoyment — my sister makes an honest-to-God Christmas cake….with Marzipan and Royal Icing, and with cute little decorations! She’s a kitchen goddess. And I make honest-to-God mince pies, even though I’m not a kitchen goddess….

    Also — Christmas music. One of my bucket list items is to attend the King’s College Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols. I listen to the BBC broadcast, but wish I could be there in person.

    Re Agatha Christie — I’m rather embarrassed to admit that I’ve only ever read one, ages ago, and I found her absolutely John LeCarre. Maybe I’ll see if I can find the BBC adaptations streaming somewhere…sounds like they’re more my speed.

    Re the Ferrero Rocher discussion…Yes, they’re great, but they get my chocolate receptors all excited, and then I have to shut that down…so I Just Say No.

    I’m looking forward to 2019…and all the new books that are coming out then….(ahem)…

  14. CA James says:

    I always enjoy your blog posts and I usually wait till the end of the month to read them-so keeping to that. I particularly enjoy that I always learn something new.
    And as you’ve asked… what I’m enjoying…an American here, a Northerner recently relocated to the South-Texas to be specific. We bought a house here in the summer. This was our first Christmas in our house in our new hometown. I’m enjoying staying put. We’ve kept it quiet and simple. This is the only time of year I like to bake and I’ve enjoyed my own bakes: gingerbread muffins, molasses cookies, Russian Tea Cakes, and orange cranberry bread. I’ve also enjoyed the weather as it gets cooler here. It was below 40 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. Our cats get very cuddly when the temperature falls which is particularly good for my reading. I hate to disturb them and therefore I sit still and read with them. Have a Happy New Year, Alexis.

  15. Susan says:

    EverQuest 1 was so many years ago. I could NOT go back. It was beginning to be empty when I left it.

  16. Alice Everafter says:

    Another great post, you always have different takes on things. I agree about the MMO thing – played World of Warcraft since the vanilla days but i think it has stood up to the test of time better. I stil know a couple of people playing tho we sold my guild and the remaining few scattered to other servers and new mains, Stormwind was heaving on Silvermoon server last time I was there, but there is a pervasive emptiness as in all these online communities.
    I had a fascinating chat with a mentor (who i am still close to in rl) in SecondLife about 12 years ago about the artificial closeness engendered in these games and the overspill into real life/ fulfilment. I’ve met some some incredible people online, felt abit humbled to meet such brilliant shiny people. They don’t carry well into real life, but that doesn’t change the impact. It is what it is andI still adore a Death Knight in bunny ears at the WoW Noblegarden festival 🙂
    Thanks for the post, and Happy New Year to you and yours!

  17. Melissa says:

    I have to say I *loved* LFG. So sweet and tender and also an eye-opener to me about the world of MMOs which is certainly a foreign country to me. (Which really shouldn’t and doesn’t matter, when I was a kid I was a big fan of Dick Francis while not being a fan at all of steeplechasing.) Also it took me one step closer to understanding my kids’ culture!
    Happy new year Alexis & thanks for your wonderful books.

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