Sunday, January 28, 2007

Book Review: The Knot Fairy

The Knot Fairy

by Bobbie Hinman

I don't often review picture books, but I met Bobbie Hinman at a book festival, and when I heard that her book was about fairies, I offered to review it. The Knot Fairy is a sweet and adorable book that tells children, in rhyming couplets, about a fairy that visits them every night to tangle their hair. Children will delight in the slightly subversive message about flaunting one's tangled locks. The illustrations, by Kristi Bridgeman, are lovely and Kristi gives the Knot Fairy real character. The book comes packaged with an audio CD featuring the author reading the story, and a theme song sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Book Review: The New Policeman

The New Policeman

by Kate Thompson

Something is happening in the world: somehow there's never enough time anymore. It never used to be this way, did it? J.J. Liddy sets out to find out where all the time is going; he's determined to find more time for his mother for her birthday. But J. J. finds more than he bargained for, as his quest for time intersects with his love of music, his family's past, and the land of Tir na n'Og.

The New Policeman is a delightful treat and just plain fun to read. Magic, music, and surprises ooze from every page. It's hard to describe this book; it's unlike any other that I've read. What can you say about a book that has a page of music at the end of every chapter? (I've read books with music before, but none that integrated music with the story to this extent). It made me wish that the book came with a CD of the music so that I could hear what it sounds like. The writing is light and humorous and full of witty social observations. And it's fun to watch the different story threads come together. In that respect it reminded me of Holes: there's that "aha" moment when you see how it's all going to come together.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Cybils F/SF weekly wrapup: 1/7/07 - 1/21/07

I haven't done a Cybils wrap-up in a while, so I'm doing two weeks this time.

The following books have been reviewed by members of the fantasy and science fiction committee in the two weeks between January 7 and January 21:

  • Agent Boo by Alex De Campi and Edo Fuijkschot: reviewed by Sheila
  • Magic Lessons by Justine Larbalestier: reviewed by Gail
  • The Problem Child by Michael Buckley: reviewed by Michele
  • The Shadow Thieves by Anne Ursu: reviewed by Kim
  • Travels of Thelonious by Susan Schade and Jon Buller: reviewed by Sheila
  • Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: reviewed by Sheila

In addition, the Cybils F/SF nominating and judging committee members have made the following Cybils-related posts:

Full nominations list with reviews
F/SF Shortlist

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Monday, January 22, 2007

ALA Awards

In case there's anyone in the kidlitosphere who doesn't know yet that the 2007 ALA/ALSC awards, including the Newbery and the Caldecott, have been announced, you can see the list of winners here. I haven't read any of the Newbery medal or honor books, but a couple of them sound interesting. Sadly, no fantasy made the Newbery list this year, but I was excited to see Cybils finalist The Last Dragon is one of the honor books for the Batchelder award, given to a book (actually, the publisher of the book) translated into English from another language. I thought The Last Dragon was a delightful book that deserved greater recognition; now it looks like it is achieving that recognition!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Graphic novel hybrids

Once upon a time, there were comic books. Then comic books grew up and became graphic novels. Up to now, I'm sorry to say that I haven't paid too much attention to graphic novels. I love books; I love to lose myself in a story and to grow to love (or hate!) characters who begin to seem like real people to me. And I understand that graphic novels can do these things, too, but I just don't have the patience for them. It just seems to take too long to develop a story and characters when I have to puzzle over those little pictures, and I certainly can't lose myself in the story.

Now, graphic novels have crossed the line - the line between graphic novels and text novels, I mean. A new kind of book has emerged - graphic novel hybrids. These books intersperse graphic novel sections with text novel sections to tell a story in both words and pictures. Three of these graphic novel hybrids were nominated for the Cybils in the fantasy and science fiction category (actually, two were moved over from other categories). I found it to be an interesting medium with potential to encourage reluctant readers and visual learners to read more. It's still not a format that I'd read by choice, but I enjoyed reading the three hybrids that were Cybils nominees. I took a look at Abadazad Book 1: The Road to Inconceivable in an earlier review, and in this post I'll take a look at the other two.

Agent Boo

by Alex De Campi and Edo Fuijkschot

Boo is a fourth-grader, and one of the smallest girls in the school. So when Book is chosen to be an Agent, the guardians of the multiverse, it's a surprise to everyone, including her. Boo struggles in Agent training because of her size, so when Queen Misery attacks and the Agents go off to fight her, Boo is left behind. But Queen Misery attacks the Agent's Aerie instead, and Boo and her cat companion Pumpkin are left to defend the Aerie by themselves.

Agent Boo appears to be aimed at a younger audience than the others in this category. Its futuristic adventure story and cute, kid-friendly manga style illustrations, should appeal to the target audience. The theme that anybody can achieve greatness, regardless of size, age or abilities, is promising. I was disappointed, however, that the climax of the story didn't live up to the promise of the theme; I expected Boo to give Queen Misery a good butt-kicking, Home Alone style, but instead Boo saves the day with the help of a deus ex machina, a resolution that I found unsatisfying.

Travels of Thelonious

by Susan Schade and Jon Buller

Travels of Thelonius is a lovely book and definitely the best of the graphic novel hybrids we saw for the Cybils. It's the story of a post-apocalyptic world where humans have disappeared and there are civilizations of talking, thinking animals. Thelonious is a chipmunk who lives in the forest but longs for adventure; he is fascinated with the legendary humans. When Thelonious is swept away from home in a storm, he finds a ruined human city populated by animals. A porcupine named Fitzgerald, who collects ancient books, takes Thelonious under his wing and shows him the ways of the city. The two of them meet a bear named Olive who is building a flying machine. Together the three of them, along with a stowaway, take off for adventure to find the Fog Mound, Olive's lost home.

Everything about this book was well done. The story is interesting and the characters are fairly well-developed. The color illustrations are beautiful and add value to the story. Visually-oriented kids will love this book, and it's a great book to read aloud to younger children. It's not a perfect book; some questions are left unanswered and things are left open for a sequel. I found the little human that they find to be particularly irritating. Who is he, why is he so small, and why can't he talk? He seemed to have no purpose in the story other than to be some kind of reverse pet. But generally I thought it was very good, and it came very close to making it onto the shortlist for the fantasy and science fiction Cybils award.


I can't believe that we're up to the 10th Carnival of Children's Literature. Kelly at Big A little a did a great job with it: it's packed with interesting links, well-organized for easy browsing, in a winter theme.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I'm no poet, but when my niece challenged me to write a poem, I thought I'd try my hand at writing a Fib. The mathematical nature of the format appeals to me; at one time I was a math major (it didn't last, though; eventually I changed my major).

Eternal Spring
a fib by Sheila Ruth

Spring-like warmth
Plagues January
Eternal Spring, ‘tis a good thing?

We've had a strange winter where I live. You could hardly call it winter at all. We've only had a couple of cold days, and even then I'm not sure that it got down to freezing. Most of the time the temperatures have been hovering in a pleasant Spring-like range. I'm not a big fan of cold weather, so for a while I found the warm weather very enjoyable, but even I've started to find it disconcerting.

Book Review: The Tiffany Aching Adventures

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky

by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch. No, she doesn't carry a magic wand or cast showy spells or go to a fancy school of magic. But she does use her eyes to see what's really there, and her brain to think critically, and she has a well-developed sense of responsibility. In Terry Pratchett's universe, these are the essential qualities that make a witch.

In The Wee Free Men, witch-finder Perspicacia Tick discovers 9-year-old Tiffany just as two worlds are colliding: the boundaries with fairyland are breaking down and the Queen of the Fairies is sending in her nasties. Miss Tick goes to get help from some more powerful witches, but Tiffany can't wait. The Queen of the Fairies has stolen her brother Wentworth, and Tiffany sets off to rescue her brother armed only with a frying pan. But Tiffany isn't alone. She's accompanied by a group of tiny blue men called the Nac Mac Feegle, a rowdy, hardheaded (in more ways that one), aggressive, but loyal group of fairies who run around fighting, stealing, and drinking (and any combinations of the above) and yelling, "Crivens!" But even with the help of the Feegles, Tiffany will need to learn to use her First Sight and her Second Thoughts to navigate the maze of dreams that protects Fairyland.

In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is now 11-years-old, and she goes to live with an experienced witch, Miss Level, to learn the ways of witchcraft. But witchcraft turns out to be less interesting than Tiffany expected: it seems to mostly consist of taking care of the old and the sick. But when Tiffany attracts the attention of a hiver, an entity which seeks to possess her, she comes face to face with her darkest thoughts. To defeat the hiver, she must learn what is important and find the soul and center of witchcraft.

In Wintersmith, Tiffany is now 13, and living with and learning from Miss Treason, a very scary witch who terrifies everyone. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, the locals trust Miss Treason and come to her with their problems. From Miss Treason, Tiffany learns the art of Boffo, of giving people what they need to see to believe in you.

When Tiffany disobeys Miss Treason and joins a dance at the changing of the seasons, she attracts the attention of the Wintersmith, the Winter elemental. The Wintersmith becomes infatuated with her, and sends snow that looks like Tiffany and Icebergs in her form. Unless Tiffany can find a way to deal with the Wintersmith, the world will be overwhelmed with a neverending and deadly winter.

I loved these books. They're witty and clever and insightful. I love the way the witches are portrayed as down-to-Earth people who use their eyes and their brains more frequently than magic, and who do what needs to be done. I couldn't help thinking of these books as the anti-Harry Potter; although I love the Harry Potter books too, the Tiffany Aching series just makes all that preoccupation with spells and magic wands and such seem so superficial. Indeed, superficiality and shallow-mindedness are lampooned more than once in this series.

Then there are the Feegles. Really, the Nac Mac Feegle are the best part of these books. When they aren't there, I long for them to return, and when they are there, I can't help laughing out loud. I wish I had a clan of Feegles watching over me! (Although, like Tiffany, I wouldn't want them watching in the bedroom or the privy!)

Altogether this is a wonderful series that is well worth reading.

Wintersmith is a Cybils nominee. Although it is the third book in the trilogy, I read it first and it stood well alone.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

What kind of reader am I?

Thanks to MotherReader, I found out about this quiz to find out what kind of reader you are. I took the quiz and ended up a "Dedicated Reader." Not too surprising, although I think "Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm" might have fit better, since I tend to be a bit obsessive about everything that I do, including reading.

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Literate Good Citizen
Book Snob
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cybils F/SF weekly wrapup: 12/31/06 - 1/7/07

Now that the shortlists are posted and the judging committees have started their work, the nominating committee is taking a well-deserved breather to recover and catch up on things we neglected in favor of our Cybils duties. As you would expect, the pace of the Cybils reviews has slowed down, although there were a few reviews last week. I expect that we will continue to see some reviews of Cybils books, as some of us catch up with Cybils books that we wanted to read and review but didn't get a chance to during the crush of trying to make the deadline. As long as there is anything to post, I will continue to post these weekly wrapups until the big announcement of the winners on February 14th.

The following books have been reviewed by members of the fantasy and science fiction committee in the week between December 31 and January 7:

  • A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve: reviewed by Sheila
  • devilish by Maureen Johnson: reviewed by Sheila
  • Pucker by Melanie Gideon: reviewed by Sheila
  • Samurai by Jason Hightman: reviewed by Sheila
  • The Summer King by O.R. Melling: reviewed by Kim

In addition, Gail posted an update to her review of Homefree, by Nina Wright.

Full nominations list with reviews
F/SF Shortlist

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Book Review: Pucker


by Melanie Gideon

Thomas Quicksilver came to Earth from an alternate world called Isaura. In Isaura, there are people called Seers who can predict the future. The Seers help with planning every aspect of life in Isaura, from the daily menu to the weather. Thomas' mother and father were Seers, until one horrible day which left Thomas' father dead and his mother stripped of her Seerskin, the outer layer of skin that allowed her to prophecy. Thomas himself was so badly burned in a fire that the scars on his face will never heal.

Thomas' mother escaped with him to Earth, where she tried to make a new life for them. But life is hard for Thomas, whose peers call him "Pucker" because of the disfiguring scars he bears. And on top of everything, Thomas' mother is dying. The only way to save her is for Thomas to return to Isaura and retrieve her seerskin. To return to Isaura, Thomas must become one of the Changed: humans with disabilities of various types who are taken to Isaura and cured of their disabilities. In return, they agree to serve the Isaurans for the rest of their life.

But Thomas doesn't anticipate how being Changed will affect him. Now, he is not only unscarred, but beautiful: girls compete for his attention. If he returns to Earth, he will have to give all this up; his scars will return and all will be as it was before. But if he doesn't return to Earth with his mother's skin, she will die. While Thomas hides his identity and searches for his mother's seerskin, he wrestles with his anger and bitterness and tries to come to terms with the decision he must make.

Pucker is the kind of book that stays with you long after you finish it. The story is exciting and moving, and the fantasy world and the characters, both human and Isauran, are well developed. I felt a lot of emphathy for Thomas. He has so much pain. Even when he acted despicably, I still felt for him and wanted him to learn to come to terms with his past and his present. Pucker surprised me, not once, but multiple times.

Pucker is a Cybils finalist

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Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group

One of the best thing about being on the Cybils nominating committee was the chance to talk about books with other people who also love children's literature. Now, there's another great opportunity to discuss good (hopefully!) books: Michele of Scholar's Blog has started a book discussion group on her blog. Each month, she will post a book to read on her blog, and then a month later, discussion will commence in a blog post. The first selection is King of Shadows by Susan Cooper. I'm looking forward to reading it, because I love Susan Cooper, but I haven't read this one yet.

Book Review: devilish


by Maureen Johnson

Jane Jarvis has always looked after her best friend, Ally. So Jane is determined to help Ally through Big-Little day at Saint Teresa's Preparatory School for Girls. Big-Little day is a day when seniors each choose a freshman to take under their wing and mentor as their "little." Ally, unpopular and totally lacking in self-confidence, is sure that no freshman will want her for a "big." And sure enough, Big-Little day ends disastrously for Ally when she humiliates herself in front of the whole school.

But the next day, something strange starts happening. Ally shows up at school with a new haircut and new clothes. Not only is her appearance changed, but Ally also seems to have developed a new-found confidence. Jane begins to suspect that something is wrong, and eventually she discovers that Ally has sold her soul to a demon. Jane is determined to save Ally at all costs, but more than that, Jane soon finds herself caught up in cosmic battle against the forces of evil.

I'm not a big fan of high school stories; high school wasn't all that great when I was actually there, and I certainly have no desire to relive it in books. But devilish caught my attention from the first page and held it to the end. Jane is a fascinating character, a brilliant student but a rebel, and it's a lot of fun to watch her try to outwit the demon. devilish is a funny, fast-paced story with many interesting twists, but mostly it's just a really good read.

devilish is a Cybils nominee

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Book Review: The Mountain of Marvels

The Mountain of Marvels

by Aaron Shepard

The Mountain of Marvels is a retelling of several tales of Welsh mythology from the Mabinogion. Aaron Shepard tells the stories in a clear, compelling prose that is perfect for elementary-age kids. There are three related stories in this book, all of which tell the adventures of Lord Pwyll, King of Dyfed, his friend Manawydan, and the Lady Rhiannon. In the first story, Lord Pwyll meets and marries Rhiannon, but not without gaining a dangerous enemy in the process. In the second story, Rhiannon and Pwyll lose their son, and Rhiannon, blamed for his death, receives a heavy punishment. In the last story, the kingdom of Dyfed, and then Pwyll and Rhiannon, are cursed by an unknown evil. Manawydan must try to save his friends and their kingdom. Through the progression of the stories, the friends learn that there is a consequence to every action, and some choices come with a price.

The Mountain of Marvels would be a great book for a librarian or teacher to read to a class. The stories are written in a lyrical voice that channels the ghosts of storytellers past. I could almost hear the storyteller in my head as I was reading the story, and imagine the wide eyes of the children listening. The Welsh names may be difficult for some readers, but Shepard has included a pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book.

Some of the behaviors and values seem, at times, extreme to our modern sensibility, but that only accentuates the exotic nature of these stories from another time and place. There is one scene that may be disturbing to some children: the ladies who lost Rhiannon’s son kill a piglet and spread its blood on Rhiannon to accuse her of killing and eating her own son. However, this isn’t really any worse than some of the things that happen in the Greek and Roman myths that are read by many children.

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Book Review: Samurai


by Jason Hightman

Simon St. George is a dragon hunter. He and his father Aldric are descendants of the legendary Saint George, and they have a gift that enables them to see through the disguises which allow the dragons to live unnoticed among humans. The dragons terrorize humankind, spreading sickness and death and despair, and feeding off the misery of humans.

Simon and Aldric believe that they are the only dragon hunters remaining on the earth, but when a quest takes them to Japan, they find a band of Samurai dedicated to fighting the serpents. The two groups immediately mistrust each other, and culture clash ensues. But when Asia's most powerful dragons are drawn together in what may turn out to be a partnership, the two groups of dragon hunters must learn to work together.

Dragons are quite popular these days, and nice dragons have become the norm. Plenty of books feature cute dragons, lovable dragons, or telepathically bonded dragons. But the dragons in Samurai are not cute or nice. These are mean, evil, butt-kicking dragons. So the reader doesn't have to feel sorry for the dragons as the St. Georges go out to do battle. This is a kill or be killed situation.

Samurai would make a great movie. There's plenty of action, car chases, sword battles, fires, and general mayhem. With all the destruction going on, it's amazing that no one but the dragon hunters realizes that something supernatural is amiss. (Ordinary people just think that these are regular disasters).

Although the dragons are evil, they're fascinating characters with distinct personalities. The Dragon of Japan, for example, seeks a Zen-like equilibrium. Although he loves the death and misery caused by his actions, he tries to avoid extremes of emotion.

One disappointment is that Simon and his counterpart in the Samurai seem so ineffectual. Simon makes mistakes and does impulsive things, and the young Samurai isn't even allowed to go into battle. Often they are shunted aside by the adults, and their suggestions are ignored. To some extent it's not a bad thing; I think a lot of kids will identify with not being taken seriously by the adults. But dramatically it causes a problem in the story; you want the kids to show the adults up so that you can cheer for them. And while the young people do acquit themselves well in the end, it's not as much as I had hoped for.

Overall, though, Samurai is an exciting book that will appeal to teens who love action-adventure fantasy.

Samurai is the second book in the series, but I had no problems reading it without having read the first book. Book 1 is The Saint of Dragons.

Samurai is a Cybils nominee

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Road to the Cybils

Now that the Cybils shortlists have been posted, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Working on the nominating committee for fantasy and science fiction was a lot of fun, but challenging. I loved reading all the books and discussing them with my fellow panelists. We had many interesting and thought provoking discussions, such as: Should books have to stand alone, even if they are in a series? Does a weak protagonist detract from the story, or is it appealing to kids who may be able to see themselves in the character? Will teens identify with or reject an angry, bitter protagonist? Is allegory always didactic, or can it be just a reflection of the concerns of the society in which it's written? These are just some of the many issues we wrestled with.

I've seen judges in other awards programs say that the first cut was the easiest, and we found that to be true also. Most of the books nominated were good (there were a few exceptions), but when you compare a list of books like this in such intense scrutiny, you quickly find that there is a difference between good and great. We very quickly narrowed the list from 88 nominees down to 28 possible shortlist candidates.

Some of the 28 had only one person supporting them, so in those cases, the supporter made a case for the book. In some cases, no one was convinced, and we removed the book, in other cases some of the team members agreed that the book should stay on the list. Eventually, we got the list of 28 narrowed down to 15 books. That was the point where our list started to reach equilibrium. Every book on the list had at least two team members supporting it, in many cases passionately supporting it. Then it started to get hard, because no one wanted to give up any of the books they supported.

It started to look bleak, until my wonderful husband asked me, "Which books would you fight for?" So we took his suggestion, and each of us posted a list of the 2 or 3 books we would fight for. By compiling that, we narrowed the list down to 10 really excellent books:

Avielle of Rhia
Beka Cooper: Terrier
The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle
The Last Dragon
Ptolemy's Gate
Silver City
Travels of Thelonious

Then it got ugly. We had to somehow cut the list in half, to only five books, and no one wanted to give up. Three of the books emerged as strong favorites (I won't say which ones lest we influence the judges!) but it was a close race between the other seven books. With only hours to go, we voted, discussed, voted again, discussed some more, ranked, discussed and voted. We all got pretty frustrated before it was over. Finally, (only about 12 hours late) we broke the tie and we had a shortlist:

Beka Cooper: Terrier
The Last Dragon
Ptolemy's Gate
Silver City

Not everyone agreed with every book on the list, but I think that overall we ended up with a really good list that reflects the best of children's and young adult literature. View the shortlist with descriptions on the Cybils site.

It was great fun, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. I made new friends and discovered great books that I wouldn't have read otherwise. I can't wait to see which of our five outstanding books the judges will choose as the winner!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Just for fun

Thinking of taking over the world, but don't have a good plan? Try the Evil Plan Generator! Every fantasy villian should have one.

Thanks to my son David for the link.

Cybils Finalists

After over two months of hard work, the Cybils nominating committees announced the finalists in each of the categories today. The finalists in the fantasy and science fiction category are:

Ptolemy’s Gate
by Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion: Miramax

Magician John Mandrake (aka Nathaniel), rebel commoner Kitty, and wise-cracking, sarcastic djinni Bartimaeus are drawn together in spite of their differences to battle a powerful evil. The three learn more about each other and try to come to terms with their past, in this stunning series conclusion that also stands well alone.

Silver City
by Cliff McNish
Carolrhoda Books

The second in an astonishingly original trilogy, Cliff McNish's Silver City continues the story of six extraordinary and special children and how they are preparing to defend the world against an alien being known only as the Roar, that is heading their way through space. A gripping sequel to The Silver Child, which nonetheless can be read as a stand-alone (though we recommend the entire series).

Beka Cooper: Terrier
by Tamora Pierce
Random House

Beka Cooper is one tough but vulnerable heroine who fights crime in a world of magic. Her passion to save the kidnapped children of the Lower Side, along with some action-packed scrapes with thieves and rogues, makes Beka Cooper a must read of 2006.

The Last Dragon
by Silvana de Mari
Hyperion: Miramax

The Last Dragon is a clever, playful, and funny story with a lot of kid appeal. A very young elf, trying to stay alive in a world darkened by rain and oppression, finds life full of surprises as he tries to follow the destiny laid out for him in an ancient prophecy.

by Melanie Gideon
Penguin: Razorbill

Pucker by Melanie Gideon is the story of seventeen-year-old Thomas Quicksilver who was disfigured in a fire when he was a child back before he and his mother were exiled to Earth from Isaura, a "pocket of a world," a parallel reality. His voice is both modestly wiseass and yet mature and sophisticated. Thomas sounds like a teenager, but one who is self-aware instead of self-obsessed.

All the shortlists look great. You can see the finalists in all the categories at the Cybils web site.

All quiet in the Kidlitosphere

Usually when I wake up in the morning, my feed reader shows at least a few new posts in the blogs I read regularly. But this morning, there are no new blog posts for me to read. All is quiet in the Kidlitosphere. It's as if we're holding our collective breath, waiting for the announcement of the Cybils shortlists beginning in about 15 minutes, at 9:15. Or maybe it's just that everyone is still asleep after too much New Year's Eve partying. It's hard to say.