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Book Review – The Collector by Jack Nisbet

The CollectorHave you ever had a book you’ve waited years to read? This is mine.  I remember seeing it at Borders Bookstore when it first came out in 2010.  I picked it up, read the back, and flipped through the pages.  It was in the Northwest Natural History section, right by the front of the store.  Near Wheedle on the Needle and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. I loved the beautiful illustration of a Douglas Fir cone on the front cover.  It was about David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest.  The recommendation on the front called it ‘exhilarating’ and I was sold.  I really wanted to read this book.  Over the next few months every time I saw The Collector I would categorize it in my mind in the ‘to read’ section and would often touch it as I walked by.  I had already claimed it, if not bought it.  But then Borders closed and it was lost in my imaginary book pile for awhile.  Until last month when I visited Powell’s Books in Portland for the first time.  I was shocked at the size of the store. I was starstruck with the amount of books in one location. I was shaken with excitement and this book was uncovered in my memory.  I inquired about the Natural History section, located The Collector and it became mine after a $16.95 exchange.  Sometimes I get tired of reading about people and I just want to read about plants.  Enough with the character development, just give me a forest. Give me a cone!  Give me a leaf and a bud and a season and I have a story.  But it turns out that this book is more about the man and less about the plants. And that is just fine, because the man was all about the plants.  The man, David Douglas, was a Scottish botanist/explorer who described and categorized many plants right here where I live, in the Pacific Northwest.  He came to the Northwest in 1824 and since then his name is synonymous with this part of the country, as in the ever-present Douglas Fir.

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir

I don’t want to start at the beginning though, but rather at the end.  The end of the book.  (Spoiler Alert) He dies! It’s unbelievable.  It’s disconcerting.  It’s so sad.  In the middle of his travels, while exploring and observing and doing what he did best, suddenly David Douglas has a freak accident without any witnesses, and he’s gone.  No more Noble Fir, no more Salal, no more Brown’s Peony!!!  No more discoveries, at least.  I was not ready for this ending and actually had tears come to my eyes as I read it.  Just like that?  His life was over just like that? Yes, I know it was almost 200 years ago.  Of course he has died since then.  But the manner of his death was so shocking and unexpected.  He was so full of life and enthusiasm, with packets and cartons filled with newly discovered plants and seeds.  There was so much momentum in his life when it came to an abrupt end.  So tragic.

If you enjoy plant names, you’ll like this book.  It’s filled with references to men like William Hooker and Archibald Menzies, who were contemporaries of Douglas.  We get to find out the story behind the people behind the plant names, such as Pseudotsuga menziesii.  “When modern naturalists set out to study the flora and fauna of the Northwest, many of the names that roll off their lips and out f their field guides first flowed from the pen of David Douglas.” The author, Jack Nisbet does a satisfying job of telling the story of  Douglas.  This book is written from letters and journals written by Douglas and his friends.  One thing I would have liked was more plant information.  He told us where the plants were discovered, how their seeds were collected and shipped back to England, but I wanted to know how they influenced the gardens of England.  He briefly mentioned this with a few plants.  I would have liked a showcase of a few of his discoveries with more details about where they were growing, where they ended up, the importance in the retail industry and possibly how they influenced plant breeding.  Give me more!

The collector recounts the life of Douglas, giving his early history, but mainly focusing on his natural history explorations in North America. His first collecting trip was to the Northeast of the United States and this just whet his appetite. Soon thereafter he was sponsored by the Hudson Bay Company and sent by the London Horticultural Society to the Northwest.  David Douglas began collecting even before he arrived in the Northwest.  During the long ocean passage from England to the Northwest, his ship docked in several ports for supplies.  One stop was in Rio, Brazil where Douglas said “my pockets (were) filled with the granite of Rio; my hat outside and inside was pinned full of insects and both my arms full of plants.”   I like that the first plant he noticed when he stepped off the ship in the Northwest  was the leathery green leaves and pink blossoms of Salal, our ever-present shrub. He noted that the local pronunciation was not Shallon, as recorded by Lewis and Clarke, but rather Salal.  He referred to lupine as the “most magnificent herbaceous plants I have ever beheld.”

Lupinus latifolius

 I didn’t realize how much work he actually did to make his trip possible.  He walked, he hiked, he climbed, he rode horses and often foraged for his food.  He suffered from cold and heat and physical exhaustion.  Nisbet reports that “Gathering seeds was not the only painstaking work at hand, for he also had to analyze each new plant he found, determining its genus and then comparing its characteristics to the limited species that had been identified in the botanical manuals of his day.  His primary references were Thomas Nutall’s Genera of North American Plants and Frederick Pursh’s Flora Americae.”  I admire his dedication and persistance.  He also recorded many of the native american customs and uses for plants.  Besides visiting the Northwest on two separate occasions, he spent several years in central California and was exploring the Hawaiian Islands on his return trip when he died so prematurely.

David Douglas—The Collector

According to a fascinating blog post I recently read by Naturanaute on Plant hunting, ” 15-30% of the world’s flowering plants (around 70000 species) are yet to be discovered, which means that finding, describing and even cultivating these unknown plants is essential to gain a better understanding of global biodiversity.”  David Douglas was a pioneer in this field and it’s exciting to realize that even in our day, new discoveries are being made.  I really enjoyed reading this book.  For any natural history enthusiast it was a well written and exciting adventure.  Hearing descriptions of the early flora and fauna of my country was priceless.  I’ll end with the beautiful closing words of Jack Nisbet “The thrill of such discoveries lifted him (Douglas) from the sagebrush summer into Blue Mountain snow squalls, where he could disappear in a riot of June wildflowers.  On the shattered basalt atop Mount Blalock, the collector knelt close to judge the progress of one season’s royal peony seeds.  During the course of some future excursion, when the elements had toasted them to perfection, he would gather a few.  That was one of the ways Douglas would share part of this place with the rest of the world: he would take those seeds home, and encourage them to sprout anew.”

Book Review—A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

 A Memory of Light

Rand al’Thor The Dragon Reborn

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. So begins the first chapter of A Memory of Light, the final book in the quintessential fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. I loved this book! Reading this series is all about commitment. Once you decide to join in this 14 book epic adventure, the river of imagination will sweep you off your feet. It’s not for the faint of heart, who only open a 150 page novella once in a while. This story, with it’s numerous plots and subplots, overabundance of characters and continual fight between good and evil will throw you into it’s weave, making you a part of it’s pattern. Holding you in with both air and spirit as you enter a world that is both familiar yet so very different from our own.

This final book, A Memory of Light, brings all the stories together for the Last Battle. During most of this book the characters move in and out of this battle and we get to see the genius of military strategy in some characters and the creation of heroes in others as all gather to dance the spears. Towards the end I was feeling weary. I was so pulled into the story that I couldn’t help but feel the exhaustion that so many were going through as they fought so valiantly and unfailingly to save the world. If they lost this battle, all would cease to exist. There were no other options,this was the last battle! I could almost feel my muscles ache and the weariness enter my bones as I sped toward my goal of page 909, the end.

Now it’s a bittersweet feeling. The ending was complete, somehow hundreds of ingredients were thrown into a bowl, whipped furiously and out came a perfect cake. Fulfilling and finished. That’s what this story was like. Lots of action with many parts and pieces swirling around until the end, which left us with something bright and pure. I feel wistful, could it really be over? Has the wheel stopped turning for me? I miss Perrin and the wolf dream, Mat and his lucky hat, the Aes Sedai , the strength of the one power, Rand, Min, Aviendha, Elayne! I feel like I’ve just woken from the dream. But we know there are no endings, for the Wheel weaves as the wheel wills. Robert Jordan created an extraordinary world. Incredible lands, fascinating cultures ( I like the Aiel best) and an impressive system of magic. How many of us have sought the flame and the void as taught by Tam al’Thor? I know I have. I haven’t had success feeling the sweet power of saidar, maybe I’ll discover my own magic.

(Spoiler Alert) One of my favorite moments from the book was Egwene’s final conflict with M’Hael. I had found myself not understanding her character. She was so strong, she seemed to always succeed and didn’t have as many shortcomings as many of the others. But then when I started thinking of her as Ta’veren, it all seemed to fit into place. Ta’veren are special because they cause the fabric of the pattern to bend around them. When Egwene figured out how to defeat the darkness, it was perfect. The two streams of power sprayed light against one another, the ground around M’Hael cracking as the ground near Egwene rebuilt itself. She still did not know what it was she wove. The opposite of balefire. A fire of her own, a weave of light and rebuilding. The Flame of Tar Valon. And then she sacrificed herself in a quiet and beautiful explosion. She died. Tears filled my eyes and I felt like I finally understood her. Sniff, sniff.

When I reached the ending I felt a shift and I could tell these were Robert Jordan’s words. There was a warp in the pattern. Having been immersed in Brandon Sanderson’s words for so long, it was obvious that something had changed. I missed that Sanderson style. (Spoiler Alert) Having Rand just wander off in the end, like a carefree youth, didn’t work for me. That would have been fine in the beginning of the series, but after watching his character develop and grow into such a passionate individual, I didn’t find it believable that he wanted to escape. He loved, he lived, he unified the world, he worked so bloody hard and now he just wants to ride off into the sunset and sleep in a pile of hay? Hmmmm, I don’t think so.

However, I also realize that it is a fitting end, for it’s Robert Jordan’s ending. Robert Jordan began this story, he created it, and he should, and did, end it. Brandon Sanderson accomplished something that not many could have done. Completing the Wheel of Time series was a monumental task. Duty is heavier than a mountain. He did it with his own style, yet stayed true to the story and characters. Thank You!

Oh light! Now what am I going to read?????

Thank you Macmillan Audio for the following clip from A Memory of Light audiobook. It’s read by the talented Michael Kramer and Kate Reading, who have voiced the entire series.



Moraine and Nynaeve

Here is a video clip I took at the Seattle Brandon Sanderson book signing, February 12, 2013.  Brandon Sanderson did a fabulous question and answer and then Harriet read the wind scene, which is in all the Wheel of Time books.  It was an honor to meet her, and always fun to talk with Brandon Sanderson.  I asked him how could Rand just walk off like that in the end, and he responded, he wasn’t sure what RJ had in mind, but he thinks that Rand was off on a few Jain Farstrider travels to see the world, and then Matt and Perrin would probably find him again!  Another amazing author discussion!  I gave him some homemade cookies, I thought he needed a snack during this long WOT tour.  I’m already looking forward to the next book tour, Stormlight 2, due out next November!


Elaine, Brandon, the assistant who looks like Cadsuane Sedai, and Harriet
Seattle February 12, 2013

Book Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

The Wise Man's Fear

As this is a plant blog, I will start with my plant reference.  Every book has them.  It can’t be denied….plants are everywhere! This scene is when the young hero, Kvothe, is wandering in the Fae.  He spies a tree…..

“It was no type of tree I had ever seen before, and I approached it slowly.  It resembled a vast spreading willow, with broader leaves of a darker green.  The tree had deep, hanging foliage scattered with pale, powder-blue blossoms. 

The wind shifted, and as the leaves stirred I smelled a strange, sweet smell.  It was like smoke and spice and leather and lemon.  It was a compelling smell.  Not in the same way that food smells appealing.  It didn’t make my mouth water or my stomach growl.  Despite this, if I’d seen something sitting on a table that smelled this way, even if it were a lump of stone or a piece of wood, I would have felt compelled to put it in my mouth.  Not out of hunger, but from sheer curiosity, much like a child might.”

It turns out to be an evil tree.  How can a tree be evil?  You’ll have to read the book to find out why.  Yes, I do recommend this story, but only after the first book, The Name of the Wind, because they are tied tightly together.  They are both subtitled, The Kingkiller Chronicles.  The Name of the Wind is Day 1 and The Wise Man’s Fear is Day 2. One story. Compelling. Well-written. Nice and long, the way I like a good epic fantasy.

I carried it close for a week, not wanting to put it down.  Until page 640 or so, when I suddenly stopped for two days.  I couldn’t take the Felurian descriptions anymore.  The most beautiful face, the most beautiful body, the most beautiful feet.  On and on they went and I thought, too much perfection, it’s the imperfections that make life intriguing.  And as a woman I began to dislike the portrayal of female characters. I can’t help but identify myself with the characters in the books I read, and I wasn’t finding much to work with here. Enough running around naked in fairy-land!  But then she made a cloak out of shadows and sewed it together with starlight and moonbeams, and things got interesting again.  Also, the main character stayed in each place a little too long for me.  This story is about his adventures and travels and when he was in the Fae and then again in Ademre I kept thinking, okay, enough of this, time to move on.

But he always did move on.  And had some great adventures.  I loved the part about names.  “There are two things you must remember.  first, our names shape us, and we shape our names in turn….Second, even the simplest name is so complex that your mind could never begin to feel the boundaries of it, let alone understand it well enough for you to speak it.”   I like how he describes the importance of knowing something or someones name, I quite agree.  When he captures the name of the wind, it’s fascinating.

“And then, my mind open and empty, I saw the wind spread out before me.  It was like frost forming on a blank sheet of window glass.  One moment, nothing.  The next, I could see the name of the wind as clearly as the back of my own hand.  

I looked around for a moment, marveling in it.  I tasted the shape of it on my tongue and knew if desired I could stir it to a storm.  I could hush it to a whisper, leaving the sword tree hanging empty and still.:

But that seemed wrong.  Instead I simply opened my eyes wide to the wind, watching where it would choose to push the branches.  Watching where it would flick the leaves.”

After reading this, I thought, maybe I could learn the name of the wind too?  I really enjoyed this book by Patrick Rothfuss and look forward to The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 3 (please don’t make us wait too long!)

Book Review: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

Normally when I’m taking a short ride in the car with my family, I never take along a book.  It would be rude to read when everyone wants conversation and attention.  Yesterday, however, while driving to our church, on a Sunday, with my family, I greedily carried along  The Alloy of Law.  I was at the end of the book, and the ending was that good.  How often have you read about a gunfight between the good guys and the bad guys where they use magic to to push the bullets harder, create speed bubbles to escape flying bullets, soar into the air while pushing off metal and other unimaginable tricks to win?  I’ve never read a book like that, and that’s what makes The Alloy of Law so good.  It’s new and it’s different.  A departure from the typical fantasy, but with a familiar setting and an intriguing magic system.

The story is about a former lawman, Waxillium, who returns to his home in the city after twenty years in the Roughs.  He quickly becomes involved in a robbery/kidnapping  operation.   With the help of his former partner, Wayne (Yes, we have Wax and Wayne as the main characters!) and a University student studying law, Marasi, the three of them try to get the bad guys and stay alive at the same time.  I really liked how this book was tied to the Mistborn world, with lots of references and connections to the original story.   I was wishing I had read Mistborn more recently, so I could remember more details, but this is a good opportunity to re-read it.  I liked the characters Wax and Wayne, they have a fun repartee.  Wayne was really interesting with the way he could impersonate people by ‘collecting’ their accents. Marasi however, I didn’t find as believable.  Something was missing, I felt that I didn’t really understand who she was and what her purposes were (sorry Brandon!).  But the story is excellent, the solutions imaginative and the ending, as mentioned above, is a page-turner.

Here is an excerpt from The Alloy of Law, and yes, it took some digging, but I found a plant reference, just for this blog  (Try and find a book without one, I don’t think that it exists).  “Well, they already knew he was Twinborn—that was  a matter of public record.  His disappearance wasn’t going to do much to help patch his family’s reputation. For the moment, he didn’t care  He’d spent almost every evening since his return to the city at one social function or another, and they hadn’t had a misty night in weeks.  He needed the mists.  This was who he was.  Wax dashed across the rooftop and leaped off, moving toward Demoux Promenade.  Just before hitting the ground, he flipped a spent casing down and Pushed on it, slowing his descent.  He landed in a patch of decorative shrubs that caught his coat tassels and made a rustling noise.  Damn.  Nobody planted decorative shrubs out in the Roughs.”

Don’t we love our decorative shrubs?  And thank you Brandon for not having him land in the ‘bushes’!  Read this book!  It’s great!   To find out more about The Alloy of Law and all his other works, check out Brandon Sanderson’s website.

Brandon Sanderson book signing....and me!

Book Review—A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I liked this book.  Did it make me want to don a 50 pound pack and disappear into the wilderness for three months?  No.  Did it make me want to sit down with a can of cream soda and read about the wilderness?  Yes.  Actually, what I really want to do after completing this story is just what the title says, go for a walk in the woods.  I especially want to walk more after reading that the average American only walks 1.4 miles a week!  Unbelievable.

In this 1998 hiking adventure Bryson gives us the natural history of many parts of the Appalachian Trail.  He tells of the changes that inevitably sweep over a mountain, trail or town as people come and go.  About plant expeditions he states:  “The first people to venture deep into the woods from the East…weren’t looking for prehistoric creatures or passages to the West or new lands to settle.  They were looking for plants.  America’s botanical possibilities excited Europeans inordinately, and there was both glory and money to be made out in the woods.  The eastern woods teemed with flora unknown to the Old World, and there was a huge eagerness, from scientists and amateur enthusiasts alike, to get a piece of it.  Imagine if tomorrow a spaceship found a jungle growing beneath the gassy clouds of Venus.  Think what Bill Gates, say,  would pay for some tendriled, purply lobed piece of Venusian exotica to put in a pot in his greenhouse.  That was the rhododendron in the eighteenth century—and the camellia, the hydrangea, the wild cherry, the rudbeckia, the azalea, the aster, the ostrich fern, the catalpa, the spice bush, the Venus flytrap, the Virginia creeper, the euphorbia.  These and hundreds more were collected in the American woods, shipped across the ocean to England and France and Russia, and received with greedy keenness and trembling fingers.”    

People of the Northwest, don’t take your rhodies for granted anymore!   Someone, somewhere thinks it is a most valuable plant.  I was shocked to read about the chestnut blight, with a mortality rate of 100 percent.  The Appalachians alone lost four billion trees, a quarter of it’s cover in the beginning of the twentieth century.  A Walk in the Woods is entertaining, educational and a good read for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. I’m looking forward to reading more books by this bestselling author.

Appalachian Trail Map

PP  Oh deer!  

Book Review—Enchanted April

This book was written in 1922 by Elizabeth Von Arnim yet it is still timeless in the description of people and plants.  I imagine that in any book I read I can find a plant reference.  I’m going to try, of course.  I enjoyed reading this tale of women, a medieval Italian castle, wisteria and solitude.  After finishing it I was swept up into a world of light.  A place that I remembered from my past.  How could one forget such a place or a time?  Following are two excerpts.  The first from the book Enchanted April.  The second from a piece I had written in 1988 after attending a friends wedding at a Vineyard in central California.  There are times and events in our lives that create memories, and often plants and flowers are woven in.  The wheel weaves, but not without plants, right?

Enchanted April (upon arriving in Italy):  “She stared.  Such beauty; and she there to see it.  Such beauty; and she alive to feel it.  Her face was bathed in light.  Lovely scents came up to the window and caressed her.  A tiny breeze gently lifted her hair.  Far out in the bay a cluster of almost motionless fishing boats hovered like a flock of white birds on the tranquil sea.  How beautiful, how beautiful.  Not to have died before this….to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this…She stared, her lips parted.  Happy?  Poor, ordinary, everyday word.  But what could one say, how could one describe it?  It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were washed through with light.  And how astonishing to feel this sheer bliss.”

“Wistaria and sunshine….she remembered the advertisement.  Here indeed were both in profusion.  The wistaria was tumbling over itself in its excess of life, its prodigality of flowering; and where the pergola ended the sun blazed on scarlet geraniums, bushes of them,and nasturtiums in great heaps, and marigolds so brilliant that they seemed to be burning, and red and pink snapdragons, all outdoing each other in bright, fierce colour.  The cherry trees and peach trees were in blossom—lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show.  And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavender, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea.  Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers—-the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps.”

The Romantic View.  March 13, 1988 Sal and Anke’s Wedding, Santa Cruz California. “Color and light, a garden, a dream.  Light.  Bright light, tremendous waves of visible light giving everything a glow, a shimmer, a vibrancy, a life.  Shimmering colors.  Blue blues, red reds, yellow yellows.  Balloons and bows, my teeth ached from smiling so.  Our world was everything, like the garden of Eden.  It was peace, purity, loveliness surrounding us, like a warm permeating sense.  Words of joy and unfailing trust.  Friend, lover, companion.  Wandering blissfully through sun-drenched fields.  Beautiful smiles.  The breezes laughed in uncontemplated happiness.  The hill tops uncovered all their secrets and the sky did the same.  Light colored doves and birds in blue came softly.  Mountain greeness shone upon the hills.  Color and light, white light, visible light, bathed us.  We swam merrily, without reserve.  Careless, having love just re-awakened, looking through new eyes, clear light eyes.  More real than reality.  Purer than school days.  Sweeter than dreams.  Blissful living.  A pause in the natural order of time—the final dimension.  Fun-trailing cake, 4 seasons of Vivaldi, water and wine.  Inhaling scents of roses and becoming entirely incapable of rational thought.  Breathing roses until they were throughout the head and heart.  Like hyacinths!  Like Rhapsody in Blue!  Overwhelmed in nature’s perfume.  Absorbed in smell, astounded with sight, entranced with touch, refreshed with taste and startled by sounds so fresh,  light and lovely.  For everything there is a season.  This time exists as poetry, thought, feelings  unnumbered, remembrances, visions and contentment for having lived in this sparkling world.”

I smile and laugh to read what I wrote when I was twenty-something.  But I am glad that it’s written because that time comes swirling back into my life and I remember my friends Salvatore and Anke from Moss Landing Marine Lab and their beautiful wedding day.  Where are they now?  Who knows, but it’s always fun to have an enchanted April….

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Yes, this is a fantasy novel.  Yes, this is a plant blog.  Yes, I will find a place where the two coincide to satisfy my love for a good story and my appreciation for plants.  Right on page 425 our hero Kvothe is comparing the elusive Denna to a flower, as she is tired of receiving  perfect red roses from her suitors, and wants to know of which flower she reminds him.

“Daisy is a good one…tall and slender, willing to grow by roadsides.  A hearty flower, not too delicate.  Daisy is self-reliant.  I think it might suit you…But let us continue in our list.  Iris?  Too gaudy.  Thistle, too distant.  Violet, too brief.  Trillium?  Hmmm, there’s a thing.  A fair flower.  Doesn’t take to cultivation.  The texture of the petals…smooth enough to match your skin, just barely.  But it is too close to the ground.”   Finally he decides on the fictional (I think) Selas flower.   “It is a deep red flower that grows on a strong vine.  Its leaves are dark and delicate.  They grow best in shadowy places, but the flower itself finds stray sunbeams to bloom in….There is much of you that is both shadow and light.  It grows in deep forests, and is rare because only skilled folk can tend one without harming it.  It has a wondrous smell and is much sought and seldom found.”

A botanical reference can actually be found in many fantasy stories, as the characters usually end up traveling through forests and over mountains.  In this book Kvothe chews on willow bark as a natural pain reliever  (willow=salix, aspirin=acetylsalisylic acid).  Regardless of the plant references, I loved this book!  It kept me up late and left the dishes piled in the sink, it was that kind of story.  Similar to Harry Potter, the 15 year old Kvothe is attending the University, making friends and enemies and learning magic.   He also has an interesting run-in with a dragon near the end, but who wins?  You’ll have to read to find out.  The words in this book take you on a mysterious journey, revealing tantalizing parts about the characters and their world, yet holding back information, leaving the reader wanting more!  Fortunately, the second book in this series was just published this month:  The Wise Man’s Fear.  I can’t wait to get my hand’s on it.  Happy reading!