Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

Movie Review: Destroy All Monsters

It is the close of the Twentieth Century, and the United Nations has achieved two major goals.  There is now a permanent scientific base on the moon, and a way has been found to safely and humanely contain Earth’s giant monsters on a remote island dubbed Kaijuland (Monsterland in the dub.)   World peace also seems to have been achieved but no one directly says so.

Destroy All Monsters
It took most of the movie to get here, but at last we have all the monsters!

Of course, it would be a pretty dull monster movie if the status quo remained that way, so shortly after a UFO is seen lurking near the moon base, a mysterious gas cuts off all contact with Kaijuland.  Soon, the monsters that should be on the island are spotted in capital cities around the world, destroying property and causing death…except in Tokyo.  That arouses suspicion since Japan is the closest large land mass near Kaijuland, and all the monsters normally gravitate there.

Captain Katsuo Yamabe and the crew of the spaceship Moonlight SY-3 are assigned to investigate.  They are shocked to discover that the staff of Monsterland (including Captain Yamabe’s sweetheart Kyoko Manabe) are now cheerfully directing the monsters to attack using previously unknown technology.  It turns out that aliens called Kilaaks are responsible.  The Kilaak have decided to colonize Earth and they’re not keen on human civilization.

Most of the movie is Captain Yamabe and his allies investigating the Kilaak threat and attempting to find some way of breaking their mind control over humans and monsters, with sporadic monster attacks to spice things up.  But in the final reel, we are treated to the kaiju battle action we’ve been waiting for, as Godzilla and the other Earth monsters go up against the Kilaak and space monster King Ghidorah.

This 1968 film is considered one of the weaker entries in the Godzilla franchise, as the writers had largely run out of good ideas, and the monsters weren’t really scary anymore.  The plot is thin and the acting minimal.  But it’s got that cool monster battle at the end, with Minilla actually being useful for a moment.  I also appreciate the optimistic future in which humanity lives and lets live with its giant monsters.

As of this writing, both subbed and dubbed versions are up on Crunchyroll, and recommended to kaiju fans as a pleasant popcorn movie.

Manga Review: Platinum End 1

Manga Review: Platinum End 1 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought, “Wow, God’s not doing a very good job.”?  Perhaps you have even succumbed to hubris and thought you could do a better job if you, personally, had God’s power.  As it turns out, God’s retiring and has assigned thirteen angels to seek out candidates for the open position.  Each will be able to give their candidate special powers, and there will be a 999-day competition period, at the end of which the new God will be chosen.  Special rank angel Nasse already has someone in mind.

Platinum End 1

Which brings us to our protagonist, Mirai Kakehashi.  He’s introduced to us by tossing himself off a building on the day he graduates from middle school.  Seems that Mirai is an orphan whose life has been made utterly miserable by his abusive relatives (yes, shades of Harry Potter) and now that he’s past mandatory school age, aunt and uncle want him to get a job and sign over the paycheck in return for their “generosity.”  Nasse catches Mirai before he hits the pavement.

The angel explains that she has been keeping an eye on Mirai for a while as his “guardian angel” and she is at last able to intervene to make him happy.  Nasse grants him three nifty powers; wings to fly, red arrows that will make people love him, and white arrows that kill painlessly.  Mirai isn’t too sure about this, especially as Nasse suggests using these powers in ways that seem…unethical to the boy.  He does, however, wind up using the red arrows to resolve the issue of his abusive relatives.

Now that Mirai has a future again, he works hard to get into the same school as his crush, Saki.  While that’s going on, Nasse explains more about the “replace God” contest, and they become aware of a God candidate who is most definitely abusing his powers.  This story doesn’t really intersect with theirs, as he’s quickly taken out by a third candidate, who has decided to murder his way to victory.

“Metropoliman” uses his powers to appear to be a superhero so that he can  openly hunt for the other candidates with the public on his side.  This makes Mirai worried, but the murderous “hero” isn’t his top priority when a fourth candidate turns out to be going to the same high school.  A candidate who’s gotten the drop on him!

This monthly manga is by the creators of Death Note and Bakuman, and was much anticipated.   The art is certainly excellent!  But large chunks of the premise seem to have been lifted from the Future Diary series, and several of the characters in these early chapters are kind of blah.  In particular, Ohba seems to struggle with the right balance of competence and initiative for female characters.  I am hoping that future chapters will improve this.

That said, Nasse has a lot of potential as an angelic creature that doesn’t quite grok human morality.  Her design which makes it difficult to tell whether she’s wearing clothes or just has an unusual body is also nifty.

Content issues:  In addition to frequent mentions of suicide (and one on-camera attempt) and child abuse, there’s rape and female nudity in a sexual context.  While the series is aimed at high schoolers in Japan, it gets a “Mature Readers” tag in the U.S.

Primarily recommended to fans of the creators’ previous series.  Consider getting the physical edition–there are some neat effects on the cover that don’t come across in a scan.

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Manga Review: Cells at Work!

Manga Review: Cells at Work! 01 by Akane Shimizu

It’s red blood cell AE 3803’s first day on the job.  She’s just delivered her first package of oxygen to the outer limbs, and is about to take a package of carbon  dioxide back to the lungs.  Unfortunately, she gets caught up in a pneumococcus invasion.  White blood cell U 1146 is on the job with his teammates, but one germ manages to escape into the bloodstream.  The two cells meet up later as RBC gets lost on the way to the lungs, and WBC decides to escort her back due to the current danger.  But they may have fallen into a deadly trap….

Cells at Work! 01

Educational comics are a great way for kids to learn the basics of a subject and be entertained at the same time.  In this Osmosis Jones-like manga, (originally published as Hataraku Saibou) the subject is the cells of the human body.  The various kinds of cells are personified, and we see them at work in various crisis situations.  After the pneumococcus chapter, there are stories about pollen allergies, influenza and scrape wounds.  While RBC and WBC appear in each chapter, different cells also get the spotlight.  Memory cells that remember ancient legends, T-Cells that go from weak “naive” cells to “effector” killer T-cells, and many others.

The educational system for cells appears to be inadequate, as AE 3803 needs to have the functions of cells explained to her as they’re encountered.  U 1146 is a veteran germ fighter who often comes across as scary when he gets the urge to kill.  No clean zap guns for this guy, he stabs intruders to death with a short knife, as do the other white blood cells.

As you might expect, this does mean a lot of blood is spilled, and some parents might feel uncomfortable having their middle-schooler read the series.  We learn nothing about the human these cells are inside in this volume.  Thankfully, there’s no fanservice beyond the female red blood cells wearing shorts.

There are some nice monster designs for the germs, and translation notes in the back.  This series would make a nice gift for the budding biology student, and is a decent read for folks who just want to refresh their memory on the functions of cells.

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

Sho Fukan, a simple wanderer, just wanted an umbrella to ward off the rain.  But the sly stranger called Rin Setsua manipulated Sho Fukan into helping out a damsel in  distress.  The woman’s name turned out to be Tan Hi, a shrine maiden whose family was dedicated to keeping a powerful magic sword locked away.  Tan Hi’s brother had already been killed by Betsutengai, leader of the foul organization Genkishu, who now desires the part of the sword she has to unlock the mystic barrier around the blade.

Thunderbolt Fantasy
Sho Fukan and Shyu Unshou discuss one of their group. But which one?

By assisting Tan Hi, Sho Fukan has made an enemy of the Genkishu, and is thus roped into Rin Setsua’s plan to go to the Seven Sins Tower and defeat Betsutengai.  There are many hazards along the path, so Rin Setsua recruits others for special skills:  demon necromancer Kei Gai, one-eyed archer Shyu Unshou (and his impetuous sidekick Ken Sanun), and the assassin Setsumusho.   It’s not the most cohesive group–Kei Gai and Setsumusho openly plan to kill Rin Setsua for previous wrongs once the objective is reached, Sho Fukan is only going along under duress, and everyone else is wondering if Sho Fukan is really as ignorant as he acts…or is the world’s best actor.

This show is a Taiwanese-Japanese co-production, with writing by Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica) and puppetry by Pili Co.   Yes, that’s right, it’s a hand puppet show!  Based on the popular wuxia (mystical martial arts) subgenre, the fight choreography and use of body language are masterful.  This makes up some for the expressionless faces.  I should mention here that the show was broadcast in three different languages; I am using the Japanese versions of the names for convenience.

The setting is more or less a fantasy version of China; a demon invasion two centuries before has split the country in half with a new mountain range and wasteland.   Various mystic weapons were created to drive the demons back, the most powerful of which is rumored to be the Tengyouken that Tan Hi’s family guards.  Kei Gai is a lesser demon who chose to stay in the human world for her own motives, and does not get on well with mortals.  Since everyone is wearing elaborate full-body robes, this helps conceal the puppeteers.

As expected from an Urobuchi story, there are some nasty plot twists in the last third of the series, some fairly obvious (what part of “openly plans to kill the leader” did you not understand?) and others more shocking.  It’s a wonder that anyone is left to appear in the sequel (already in production.)  Viewers unfamiliar with wuxia may find some conventions of the subgenre like random poetry recitation a little baffling or off-putting.

There’s a fair amount of blood in the combat scenes, and a surprisingly gory moment towards the end.  I’d say junior high school viewers and up should be able to handle it.

Highly recommended to wuxia and/or puppetry fans.  These are really cool puppets!  As of February 2017, the show is streaming on Crunchyroll.

And now, the opening song, created by T.M. Revolution!

 

Book Review: Daughter of the Pirate King

Book Review: Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader’s Edition for the purpose of writing this review; no other compensation was offered or requested.  There will be changes in the final product; the one I know about is that the published version will have a darker cover, less “chick lit” and more “piratey.”

Daughter of the Pirate King

We first meet Alosa disguised as a cabin boy on a ship that’s been captured by the pirate ship the Night Farer.  Despite this, she is soon spotted as a woman, and the very prize Captain Draxen and his brother/first mate Riden attacked to find.  Soon Alosa is secured in the Night Farer‘s brig, and a ransom demand is being made to her father, Kalligan the Pirate King.

Just as Alosa had planned.  For the brothers have one third of a legendary treasure map, and the only way to get on their ship to steal it was to be invited.  But though Alosa is clever and skilled, there are a few secrets she doesn’t know, and that could sink her mission before the fortnight is out.

This adventure novel is aimed at the higher end of young adult, with a protagonist who doesn’t hesitate to kill people if that’s what’s needed to accomplish her job.  Alosa has had a rough, even abusive, childhood being trained up to become a worthy successor to her father.  As a result, she has quite an edge, and her first-person narration often puts other people down in the process of showing herself to be good enough to please her father.

The one person on the enemy crew who can keep up with her acid tongue is Riden, who is perhaps a bit more compassionate than is safe for a pirate.  It comes as no surprise to the reader when the two start falling in love despite their respective positions.  The romance might be obvious, and take up more time than the action, but the banter is nice.

Alosa at times comes across as smug, especially when she reminds us that she’s holding back to hide her true awesomeness, but that does make the moments when the rug is pulled out from under her more satisfying.

The world building is minimal; it’s the Age of Sail but with a vastly simplified political situation, and a fantasy element that becomes more important in the last third of the novel.  While most of the immediate plot threads are wrapped up, this is a bit too obviously a book with a sequel coming soon.

Content:  In addition to the child abuse mentioned above, sexual assault is something Alosa thinks about a lot, due to her circumstances.  There’s some heavy petting scenes, but the characters never go all the way.  Also torture just off-stage.

Primarily for pirate story fans who do not mind a heavy romance subplot.

Manga Review: Futaba-kun Change! Vol. 1

Manga Review: Futaba-kun Change! Vol. 1 by Hiroshi Aro

Futaba Shimeru is a junior high school student whose voice has recently changed, and has started noticing girls, especially his pretty classmate Misaki.  One day, a wrestling club teammate gives Futaba a girlie magazine, and the young fellow retreats to the boys’ room to read it.  The revelation of what girls look like under their clothes is exciting, and Futaba realizes this would apply to Misaki as well, and he becomes so excited he passes out.

Futaba-Kun Change Vol. 1
Actually the Studio Ironcat cover for the sixth story, depicting both Futaba forms at the same time.

When Futaba wakes up, he is startled to discover that he himself is now possessed of female anatomy, and partially undresses to check that yes, it’s for real.  It’s at this point Futaba’s wrestling teammates burst  in looking for him and find a half-naked girl instead.  Some scary moments and the discovery that the transformation is not permanent later, Futaba arrives home and discovers that (unbeknownst to him) his entire family switches sex on a regular basis!

This 1990s shounen manga series was a fairly blatant “follow the leader” of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, but soon goes off in its own direction.  Most notably, while Ranma’s female form was treated more or less as a flesh disguise for the very male Ranma, Futaba’s two forms are both natural to his/her biology and over the course of time he/she is able to switch mental gears as quickly as the physical changes occur.  There’s also more attention to what those physical changes involve, which leads to some body function humor over the course of the story.

The series ran eight volumes with an abrupt genre change in the last volume; the author had to wrap it up because of falling sales.  It was originally brought to the U.S. by Studio Ironcat but has long been out of print.  This new version is only available on Kindle.  Nipples have been erased, and there are a couple of instances where the junior high school is referred to as “university.”

Most of the characters have over the top personalities for the sake of humor; for example, Misaki is very superstitious, while her friend Negiri is a money-grubber.  This is less pleasant in the case of Futaba’s older sister Futana, who is very lecherous (even hitting on Futaba!) and Mr. Sabuyama, a teacher who lusts after teenage boys.  The humor also relies heavily on selective obliviousness; not only has Futaba somehow failed to notice his entire family changing sex, but the very distinctive school principal runs around in a superhero costume every so often and his own daughter fails to make the connection.

There’s a lot of male-oriented fanservice, with the occasional pretty boy tossed in.  There’s also quite a bit of slapstick violence–especially in the battle tournament in later volumes.  The sexual harassment humor has not aged well.

Recommended (with reservations) for gender-bender comedy fans, and those who like Nineties manga.

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

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