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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

'First & Then' by Emma Mills

From the BLURB:

Devon Tennyson wouldn't change a thing. She's happy watching Friday night games from the bleachers, silently crushing on best friend Cas, and blissfully ignoring the future after high school. But the universe has other plans. It delivers Devon's cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent for football, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive star running back, Ezra, right where she doesn't want them - first into her P.E. class and then into every other aspect of her life.

Pride and Prejudice meets Friday Night Lights in this novel, a contemporary YA romance about love—for the unexpected boy, for a new brother, and for yourself. First & Then comes from Emma Mills, the YouTube vlogger and co-creator of the popular "life skills" channel, "How to Adult" which currently has over 160,000 subscribers.

‘First & Then’ was the 2016 debut young adult contemporary by Emma Mills.

I’m really loving Emma Mills’ young adult stories – and I think a big reason that they work for me is her embracing and amplifying of relatable and ordinary teen stories.

‘First & Then’ follows senior Devon Tennyson soon after her cousin Foster comes to live with her family. Foster’s father died and his mother wasn’t capable of caring for him, so sent him to live with his uncle. Devon is adjusting to life with Foster, who has a very quirky way about him that’s both endearing and frustrating.

Devon is also nursing a crush on her best friend and football player, Cas – and finding herself thrown into mandatory gym class torture with her high school’s star football player and “all-America”, Ezra Lynley. 

Devon’s three relationships with these boys will intersect over the course of her final year of high school, in a range of surprising and crushing ways.

I saw this on Tumblr the other day, and I snorted because it’s 100% true;

But Emma Mills is in a category of YA authors who embrace the mundanity of high school and growing up – interspersed with the pain and awesomeness of it too. Mills actually writes about her characters doing homework, attending football practice, slogging through college essay-writing and just generally being teenagers. Sometimes this is amazing, and offers up the sorts of quiet revelations readers can actually relate to – other times you wish she’d stay in the bigger moments a little longer, like house party confrontations and homecoming dramas. But overall there’s something about Emma Mills and ‘First & Then’ that reminded me a little of ‘Saving Francesca’ by Melina Marchetta, for embracing the relatable and revelatory.

This is the year of Emma Mills for me – I started by reading her second book ‘This Adventure Ends’ in January, and I’m definitely reading her forthcoming ‘Foolish Hearts’ and now I’ve read her first. I am finding that Mills’ excelling at the ordinary can sometimes be a downfall too – as in ‘This Adventure Ends’ when I realised there was no actual denouement or satisfactory rise in action, but ‘First & Then’ does a much better job of that ordinariness overall, particularly when dealing with matters of the heart.

Devon is a big Jane Austen fan, so a lot of the romance is a hark back to the tangled miscommunications that Ms Austen so enjoyed, and it serves Mills well in this book;

“Listen, Dev …” 
Nothing good ever started with listen. It was never “Listen, you just won twenty-five thousand dollars.” “Listen, I have a huge crush on you.” I think the general theory was that you had to tell the other person to listen because you were about to tell them something they didn’t want to hear. And I definitely didn’t want to hear the end of Ezra’s listen, because it was probably something along the lines of “I hope we can still be friends.”

I will say that Mills wrote a few of her secondary characters a little too well, and I was frustrated at the end when I didn’t get conclusive resolutions or revelations about their hinted-at bigger stories – Jordan and Marabelle, especially – but maybe this means she has plans for sorta-sequels down the line?

What I especially loved about Mills embracing ordinary teen life in this book was the concentration on football and “jock” players that didn’t pander to extremes or clichés. The football boys Devon is friends with are nice and ordinary, lovable, goofy, cocky, egotistical … they’re not ‘Friday Night Lights’ or ‘Varsity Blues’ or parodies of high school football Gods, and they’re not the (perhaps sometimes more realistic) teen predators and misogynistic Neanderthals – they’re just guys, and that was actually surprisingly refreshing because they felt more three-dimensional, rather than props for stories with underlining moralistic preaching.

I’m really loving Emma Mill’s style, and I am looking forward to third book ‘Foolish Hearts’. Sometimes her embracing of the ordinary is a hit (‘Frist & Then’) other times it misfired (‘This Adventure Ends’) – but either way, she sure makes the journey enjoyable.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Melbourne Launch of 'Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology'

Hello Darling Readers!

Some of you will have already seen my advertising the Melbourne book launch for Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology on social media - but as the date approaches I'm kicking it up a gear and spreading the word! 

I would love to see anyone there who is around and can make it - May 4 at the (beautiful!) Reading Kids' store in Carlton, 6PM for a 6.30PM start. Free, and no bookings required! 

More info here:

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

'Twist' Dive Bar #2 by Kylie Scott

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
When his younger brother loses interest in online dating, hot, bearded, bartender extraordinaire, Joe Collins, only intends to log into his account and shut it down. Until he reads about her.

Alex Parks is funny, friendly, and pretty much everything he's been looking for in a woman. And in no time at all they're emailing up a storm, telling each other their deepest darkest secrets ... apart from the one that really matters.

When it comes to love, serving it straight up works better than with a twist.

Twist’ is the second book in Australian romance author Kylie Scott’s ‘Dive Bar’ series, following on from 2016’s ‘Dirty’!

So, I really fucking love Kylie Scott.
Pardon my language – but it’s true and requires force to properly communicate my affections.
Because I really do fucking love Kylie Scott!

She has become one of my go-to, insta-buy romance authors and – without fail – whenever I’m in a reading rut, I can rely on one of her books to pull me out. That’s what ‘Twist’ was for me – not only the next book in a series I was already invested in (not least because I was severely in love with the originalseries that ‘Dive Bar’ is a kinda spin-off from) but it’s a book that pulled me out of a reading slump, partly induced by the God-awful world events and politics we’ve been lambasted with since … oh – about January 20th of this year?

‘Twist’ is about a Seattleite graphic designer called Alex, who has met her match on an online dating site. She’s been chatting with an Idahoan man called Eric Collins for six months now, and getting more and more attached … finally her friends convince her to jump on a plane to Idaho and finally meet him!  Except – she hasn’t been chatting to Eric all this time. In fact, Eric – owner of a Dive Bar in Coeur d’Alene – has no idea who Alex is.

It turns out, Alex has really been chatting to Eric’s brother Joe. He’s the one she’s been sharing her deepest secrets and wants with, unbeknownst to her. But Joe didn’t mean to deceive – it’s just that Eric started his profile and then (as usually happens) abandoned the project not long after, leaving Joe to clean up his mess and cut ties … except then he found Alex, and started chatting to her – and falling for her.

I love this kind of storyline – anything that has a little bit of an epistolary element to it (it’s partly why one of my fave Lisa Kleypas historical’s is ‘Lovein the Afternoon’) and I particularly like this online dating element, which I’m really surprised I haven’t come across in a romance before! (though to be fair, I don’t think I would have sought one out, but now Kylie’s ‘Twist’ has got me looking around for more of this ilk!) I especially love that Alex is a woman who doesn’t have a lot of confidence, especially when it comes to dating … and I kinda loved that when we first meet her, it’s at this very relatable juncture where she’s just been humiliated and hurt by Joe’s (however unintentional!) deception. It’s such an interesting place to start two characters from, with this real perceived “power” imbalance – and it was wonderful to see how they both reacted to this most unusual of situations.

But what I think made this a truly enjoyable – and downright HOT! – romance read and reprieve for me, was Kylie’s usual magic with men, women and relationships … Kylie was actually one of the keynotes at the Australian Romance Readers Convention (ARRC) this year, and she made a great point about why she writes female characters who have realistic bodies – women who aren’t models, who have cellulite, big bums, big boobs, flat-chests. She doesn’t write perfect women, because they don’t exist – and it makes her characters so much more real and interesting.

The only prerequisite for a Kylie Scott book (and she said this at ARRC) was; “A heroine who’s standing a little taller by the end, regardless of the guy by her side,” – and I got that message, plus so much more in ‘Twist’;

Because the same as any man, women were entitled to a fuss-free sex life should they so choose. And it didn't make us sluts, or whores, or any of the other nasty, misogynistic, double-standard bullshit that got thrown a woman's way when she didn't fit with the traditional ideals of who and what a female should be.

I just … really fucking loved this book. I loved Joe and Alex. I love the questions and statements about sex and women that Kylie Scott peppered like fist-bumps throughout. I loved how hot this was, but also sweet and funny. And I really, really loved that Kylie Scott pulled me out of a real-world-sucks reading slump with such a downright enjoyable love story of two genuinely lovely and deserving people.

My only complaint is the wait for my next Kylie Scott story hit …


Friday, March 31, 2017

‘Devil in Spring’ The Ravenels #3 by Lisa Kleypas

Received via NetGalley 

From the BLURB:
An eccentric wallflower . . .

Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she's ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.
A cynical rake . . .

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught by a rebellious girl who couldn't be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He'll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil's own bargain.

A perilous plot . . .

After succumbing to Gabriel's skilled and sensuous persuasion, Pandora agrees to become his bride. But soon she discovers that her entrepreneurial endeavors have accidentally involved her in a dangerous conspiracy-and only her husband can keep her safe. As Gabriel protects her from their unknown adversaries, they realize their devil's bargain may just turn out to be a match made in heaven . . .

‘Devil in Spring’ is the third book in historical romance author Lisa Kleypas’ new series, ‘The Ravenels’.

The first book in Kleypas’ new series was ‘Cold-Hearted Rake’ which came out in 2015 – and actually, I attempted to read it but DNF’ed after about four chapters. I don’t know why, but I could not get into it – there was none of the effervescent reading comfort I normally get from a Kleypas historical, which was disappointing. I was resigned to just sitting this series out, and patiently waiting for Kleypas to move onto her next series – whatever it may be. And then she made an announcement about who would be in the third book …

Ask pretty much any Lisa Kleypas fan, and they’ll tell you that one of their all time favourite couples she’s written in Evie and Sebastian from the third book the ‘Wallflowers’ series, ‘Devil in Winter’. Sebastian was a notorious rake who had done some pretty questionable things in the past … Evie was a red-headed innocent, with a stutter and new inheritance that made her an easy target for greedy relatives – their coming together involved Evie propositioning Sebastian to become her husband and help protect her wealth and independence – what neither of them bargained on was falling madly in love in the process. It is one of the hands-down best historical romance books and pairings in the genre. Hands. Down! So when Kleypas announced that the third book in her Ravenels series would focus on Evie and Sebastian’s son Gabriel Lord St. Vincent … well, I had to come onboard.

First off – I was able to read ‘Devil in Spring’ as a stand-alone, knowing nothing of what had previously happened in the first two books. Anyone who is not familiar with Evie and Sebastian’s story could likewise come into ‘Devil in Spring’ cold.

Gabriel is much like his father was – though rather than bedding numerous women, Gabriel’s notorious for having kept an inappropriate mistress for the last two years (a woman married to the American ambassador). He is a most tempting bachelor from a prosperous family, but with no intentions of ever getting caught in a marriage trap by a young miss … except that’s exactly what happens. Only, it’s Lady Pandora Ravenel who is quite literally caught in a settee and needs Gabriel’s help to get loose – and unfortunately when they’re caught in a compromising (but innocent) position, Gabriel is impressed upon to “do the right thing” and marry Pandora.

The only person who wants to be married less than Gabriel is Pandora – because she has plans for herself, and a business to run. And actually, I loved this aspect of the story – not only does Kleypas go into meticulously fascinating detail about women’s rights in this era (wherein even the Queen has spoken out against suffrage and suggested feminists should be whipped!) but Pandora’s business enterprise in the burgeoning board-game industry is modelled on real-life game designer Elizabeth Magie, whose patent for ‘The Landlord’s Game’ was considered direct inspiration for Monopoly (of course, a man called Charles Darrow basically stole her idea and for a long time her contributions were erased. *HUFF*!)

Gabriel is infinitely intrigued by the fact that Pandora wants to marry him about as much as she wants a salad fork in her eye – but the two agree to see if it’s worthwhile dodging ruinous rumours by having Pandora and her family stay with Gabriel’s tribe at his family’s estate.

“I’ll be nice as nice can be,” Pandora said. “But don’t you remember what happened at Eversby Priory, when a goose built her nest in the swans’ territory? She thought she was enough like them that they wouldn’t mind her. Only her neck was too short, and her legs were too long, and she didn’t have the right sort of feathers, so the swans kept attacking and chasing the poor thing until finally she was driven off.” 
“You’re not a goose.” 
Pandora’s mouth twisted. “I’m an awfully deficient swan, then.”
Pandora is most definitely a throwback to Kleypas’s archetype ‘Wallflowers’ heroines – the shy but brilliant young lady with quirks and secrets. Her background is both tragic and admirable, and it’s easy to see why Gabriel is fascinated enough to warrant getting to know her better, only to fall in love with her …

And Gabriel takes after his father as one of Kleypas’s better rakes. He’s thoughtful and kind, secretly feeling the pressure of his family and title and in need of someone like Pandora to keep him on his toes.

I will say that in the latter half of the book a political undercurrent comes into the plot which feels like it’s setting up for the fourth instalment (in which case, I’d come back for it!) but in Pandora and Gabriel’s story it felt a little disjointed. But that’s my only complaint in an otherwise stellar historical romance outing.

I may now go back and read books 1 and 2 in ‘The Ravenels’, but more likely I’ll just keep moving forward from this point on. It does feel really, really good to be back in the reading groove with Kleypas, who is one of those authors I come to rely on for a once-a-year release and guaranteed good read. And ‘Devil in Spring’ was a good way to get back in the groove.


Friday, March 17, 2017

'Silence Fallen' Mercy Thompson #10 by Patricia Briggs

Received via NetGalley 

From the BLURB:

Attacked and abducted in her home territory, Mercy finds herself in the clutches of the most powerful vampire in the world, taken as a weapon to use against alpha werewolf Adam and the ruler of the Tri-Cities vampires. In coyote form, Mercy escapes only to find herself without money, without clothing, and alone in the heart of Europe...

Unable to contact Adam and the rest of the pack, Mercy has allies to find and enemies to fight, and she needs to figure out which is which. Ancient powers stir, and Mercy must be her agile best to avoid causing a war between vampires and werewolves, and between werewolves and werewolves. And in the heart of the ancient city of Prague, old ghosts rise...

‘Silence Fallen’ is the tenth book in Patricia Briggs’s ‘Mercy Thompson’ urban fantasy series, and it follows directly on from ‘Fire Touched’.

Right. So. Remember in my ‘Fire Touched’ review when I said that book felt like it was closing the door on further storylines on the Fae and Graylords, and Briggs would gift reader a rejuvenated story-arc to follow and a new trajectory for Mercy & Co.? Yep. I was wrong – or at least, ‘Silence Fallen’ is not the book to kick that rejuvenation off … rather it reads like the book before that book. Which is a nice way of saying; “filler.”

I’m sorry, I hate not liking a Mercy Thompson book – but this tenth instalment feels like a firm 2/5 me, which is a decided disappointment. And I don’t think it being a filler-book will actually be a huge surprise to many people, because it’s right there in the blurb … that this is a book in which Mercy is kidnapped, separated from Adam and the pack who are then working to get her back. So, 98% of the book has Adam and Mercy separated – and anyone who has persevered with a long-running series (from Stephanie Plum to Night Huntress and Vampire Academy) will know that a storyline like this which manufactures a separation for the (now) established HEA, is absolutely a filler-story – trying to recapture some of the tension that the will-they-or-won’t-they romance once helped fill.

‘Silence Fallen’ is also not a very good filler-story … it momentarily drags readers back into a complicated supernatural political network that I think many fans breathed a sigh of relief when they thought it was over and done with in ‘Fire Touched’. We’re dragged into European vampire and werewolf politicking, and there’s so much backstory, asides, and long paragraphs of info-dumping that takes us out of any immediate action we may have wanted to revel in. And it’s all for nought – because it’s pretty clear by story’s end that none of what we just read is going to really impact the Columbia Basin Pack once Mercy is home safe. Basically – this entire book and any of its ramifications can be kept in Europe, and not affect a single thing back home for Mercy and Adam. Which is another polite way of saying … you could skip this one, if you really wanted to.

And I say that, even as fan-favourite Stefan steps back on the scene for this vampire-heavy plot. Unfortunately he’s under-used and underwhelming, and I get the sense that Briggs was holding back from teasing fans with anything too Mercy/Stefan big, because that would leave an indelible mark on the series universe, and that’s not what this book is about.

The only thing that’s stopping me from giving this book an even lower score is the a light-bulb *wink-wink* reveal at the end, which is very cute and a bit of a delight … even as it’s also a cop-out, and is not establishing anything new in a certain relationship dynamic. It’s previously-trodden ground, not furthering any characterisations, but I still enjoyed it and I’m probably just grasping at straws for one of my fave series.

Honestly, after reading ‘Silence Fallen’ I’m mostly wondering where we go from here, and if Patricia Briggs really has any appetite to keep telling Mercy’s story…?

It’s interesting to note that ‘Silence’ is on Brigg’s new timeline of book-releases – where once we had a 2 or so year wait for Mercy, and an ‘Alpha & Omega’ release in-between, we’re now getting one Mercy book a year … and a longer wait for ‘Alpha & Omega’ (the last book for Charles and Anna released in 2015, the next instalment is coming 2018).

For me, personally, I think Briggs may be in a bit of a conundrum … I think lots of fans would like to see Mercy and Adam expand their family. And I’d be fine with that – whatever – but I know in past books Adam’s made clear that he doesn’t want more kids, and I don’t think Mercy feels like a baby would make her life “complete” in any way (and her step-daughter Jess is her daughter, they’re already a family). Anna from ‘Alpha & Omega’ meanwhile, has been teasing that possibility for a while now … and there are higher-stakes involved for her as a werewolf, and given what happened to Charles’s mother to make him the only born werewolf – that story is more intriguing to me, and all those possibilities.

But where does Mercy go from here, if the next chapter in her series isn’t revolving around becoming a mother, as many fans predict it will be? (which – to be clear – I reject the notion that a female protagonist will only “advance” and have a seemingly “happy life” in her own story, if she becomes a mother. Just – no.)

And I feel this even more after reading her 'Frequently Asked Questions' page - because Briggs has addressed some big questions, with infuriatingly non-committal answers. To the topic of 'how many more Mercy and Alpha & Omega books will there be?' The answer is: "Patty has said that as long as she's having fun writing them, can keep them fresh and exciting, and they're selling well, she'll continue to write them indefinitely!" That scares me ... as someone who has had to give up on Anita Blake and the Blackdagger Brotherhood books for that very reason. As to; 'Will Mercy/Anna have babies?' her answer is; "They would have to play it safe and avoid adventures, which - face it - is boring!" Ok. Fair enough. And finally; 'When will Leah/Christy die a horrible and painful death?' - to which the response is; "These are ladies we just love to hate! If they were gone, we'd have to find another character to hate on, and that would be very frustrating, so it's just easier to keep them around, don't you think?" ... that's sucky to me that she even addressed this, because it means she's nixing any idea of ever writing a Bran book for one, and is basically saying that these contingents of Bran and Adam's packs are just going to be forever stagnant. Sigh. 

I need to remember that it’s been hinted at in a few books now (and also in ‘Silence Fallen’) that a lot of Mercy being in sticky situations may come down to Coyote wanting her to be there … to act as a conduit for Coyote … like she has a “higher-purpose”, so to speak. That could be interesting. But I think letting Mercy act on behalf of Coyote, while also juggling being happy and content in a pack-family is more interesting and I hope Briggs explores those conflicts in future, instead of giving us this isolationist Mercy story, that ultimately has little impact on her life or the series' universe.



P.S. – I read this book (and wrote my review) in November 2016, before announcement of the tragic and sudden death of Mike Briggs … and it did give me a pang of guilt and further disappointment that I didn’t love ‘Silence Fallen’ more. But this is just one book, and I'm only one reader, and I’ll always be a fan - regardless of a bump in the bookish road. Also as a fan, I’ll always be patient and understanding of whatever decision an author makes with regards to the continuation of their series, especially when personal circumstances such as these may be informing that future.

Friday, March 3, 2017

'Under the Love Umbrella' by Allison Colpoys and Davina Francesca Bell

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Whatever you fear, come close my dear
You’re tucked in safe for always here
And I will never not be near
Because of our love umbrella

From this award-winning creative duo comes a stunning celebration of the joy and comfort that love can bring – wherever we roam in the big, wild world.

‘Under the Love Umbrella’ is the new picture book written by Davina Francesca Bell, with illustrations by Allison Colpoys. It’s the second picture book from the duo, the first being ‘The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade’ of 2016.

I don’t often review picture books – but clearly last year when I made my first exception for 'Australia to Z' by Armin Greder on the blog, I kicked off a new tradition for myself. It’s also probably that since joining Jacinta DiMase Management (which specialises in picture-book authors and illustrators) I’ve been introduced and given a bit more background to this art form in Australia. And as such – I’ve become serious appreciative, and find myself buying the books I really can’t seem to turn away from … and ‘Under the Love Umbrella’ is one such. 

This new story from Bell and Colpoys is basically a giant hug in picture-book form, which is also why I’d recommend it for young and old. The story is more of Bell’s tenderness that was on display in ‘Fancy-Dress Parade’, as ‘Under the Love Umbrella’ gives an ode to the metaphor of safety, love and acceptance. It’s a beautifully subtle and tender message she communicates most effectively with rhythm and rhyme – and it’s one that will prompt the question from young readers at the end; “who is under my love umbrella?”

Allison Colpoys – perhaps the most in-demand artist in the Australian books world (and for good reason) – brings more of her magic to Bell’s words. She uses mostly fluro colours to great effect, nevermore than when they’re presented against a darker background (as on the cover, with fireworks). There’s something here that feels a little cool retro in her illustrations too, like they could be something out of the Little Golden Book series – it’s a sweet nostalgia. Honestly, the book is so intensely lovely I really just want to hang it on my wall for all to admire.

I will also make a note here that the children and families depicted within are from diverse backgrounds – Joe, Brian, Izzy and Grace are racially diverse, and there’s no fine point put on whether or not they have “traditional” “nuclear” families. Albeit from my limited knowledge, I at least know this is still rare in children’s picture books – though it shouldn’t be. Davina Bell even commented on it in the press release I was sent with the book, saying;
 We love how people have responded to the diversity in the book. But while it was a conscious choice to include a range of backgrounds and family constellations, the situations we represented sprang from the characters as they came to life in our minds, rather than from a deliberate strategy or design.
 That said, the timing of this book feels fortuitous. There has never been a more important moment to tie love and diversity together in the minds of children, and one of the privileges of being a picture-book creator is the chance to speak into their hearts through story.

We all know the times Bell is alluding to, and I couldn’t agree more that a book with this level of illustrated representation, and a message about bringing those you love into safety under your love umbrella … well, it’s safe to say we could all use this book. Which is why I’d highly recommend it for everyone – age be damned.

This was my first favourite book of 2017, and it feels fitting that it’s one with such a message.


Friday, February 24, 2017

New Posters! #ReadAsianOz and #ReadMuslimOz

Hello Darling Readers!

It's been a little while since we've done one of these posters - and now we're bringing you two! 

The request for a #ReadAsianOz poster came from writer, reader, and blogger Wendy Chen ('Written in Wonder') who also offered us a brilliant list of recommended titles for the poster. It's not strictly YA titles (because we really wanted to include the likes of Shaun Tan and Anh Do, who can be read up and down) and it's certainly not all there is - but we hope it's a good start. 

A #ReadMuslimOz poster was thought up in response to truly heinous world events of late, and incredible acts of discrimination and xenophobia. Even today, there are still news stories that make my blood boil - like what Yassmin Abdel-Magied has been subjected to. 

These posters were designed to put a little positivity into the world, and encourage people to read widely and diversely. 

Both posters were designed by the wonderful Jessica Harvie, and are in the DropBox available now for download - and from the LoveOzYA website: 

NOTE: Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren (Allen & Unwin) is available from JUNE 2017 - add it to your Goodreads list here