Orlando Holidays

The schools here shut down for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s, and my husband works limited hours and enjoys some vacation days. Since we all were home at the same time, we decided to take a mini-vacation over the holidays. At first, I researched cruises, but found them dreadfully expensive and lacking interesting itineraries. Crossed that option off the list. Next choice, use hubby’s hotel points and spend a few nights away. I wanted a beach resort, but all of those dates were blacked out. So, we turned to Orlando, Florida, home of all things crazy-touristy. But there was a desirable hotel with availability, and it took points. Woo hoo! But, what would Orlando be like this time of the year, one of the busiest travel seasons?

We drove north the day after Christmas, and in three hours, we were in downtown Orlando, no traffic. We couldn’t check into the hotel until 3:00 PM, so we first headed to the Orlando Science Center. Yep, we’re the family who likes science museums. Forget the Mouse and the various theme parks—we do science first. (We’ve also been to Disney many, many times since moving to Florida seven years ago.) What a great museum! It wasn’t crowded, and for less than $19 per person (there are many discounts offered), we enjoyed the entire center, plus movie tickets to the films shown in the Dr. Phillips CineDome. We explored the world of bats, learned about dinosaurs, studied weather patterns, and played engineering games. We watched “Hidden Universe” on the massive CineDome screen, and enjoyed lunch at Subway.

On our way to the hotel, we bypassed I-4 (horrible traffic) and drove through the city. Ivanhoe Village is a charming and quirky arts district just outside of downtown Orlando, and the city itself was clean and quiet.

Our hotel, Gaylord Palms Hotel and Convention Center, is located south of Orlando proper, in the Kissimmee area, which is home to most of the attractions. Gaylord Palms is now part of the Marriott Hotels family (yay, points!), and it is definitely worth checking out. We stayed for three nights in a one-bedroom suite overlooking the St. Augustine atrium. There were palm trees, waterfalls, koi, and a replica of the Castillo de San Marcos. Plus, we could see the Christmas lights and the top of the Christmas tree from our balconies.

View from our balcony. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

View from our balcony. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The Gaylord Palms has a great outdoor pool complete with a small waterpark. There’s also a spa and a large gym. We ate Sunday brunch at the Villa Rosa, which was excellent. (Our Friday night dinner at the poolside restaurant was okay…and not worth what we paid for it. There are plenty of restaurants nearby on International Drive or Osceola Parkway that serve better food for less.)

ICE! is the holiday ice sculpture show, housed in the convention center. Tickets are around $30 per person (we had a Florida resident discount, and if you go before Christmas week, you can expect to pay about $10 less per ticket) and give you access to the sculptures for a certain time of day. We went Friday at 8:00 PM. After watching a short video about the sculptures’ creation, we donned heavy winter jackets provided by the hotel (the temperature is kept at a frosty 9 degrees Fahrenheit), and walked through the display. This year’s theme was the Nutcracker.

Baby! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Baby! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Yes, this is all made out of ice. Gorgeous! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Yes, this is all made out of ice. Gorgeous! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The following day we spent at Universal Studios Orlando, a park new to us. We arrived a few minutes before the park opened, purchased one-day, one-park tickets ($96 per person, plus tax), and hit the rides. The park was not crowded that early, and we knocked out most of the attractions within the first three hours. Some amazing rides: Transformers 3-D, The Simpsons Ride, Men-in-Black Alien Attack. Shrek 4-D and the E.T. Adventure ride were also charming. My husband and older kid rode Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster and found it thrilling. The Terminator 2: 3-D show was a little dated but still fun. The Twister attraction was meh, but the lines for that seemed to stay short throughout the day, even during peak hours.

Fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Of course, we braved the crowds, and a nearly two hour wait—the only significant wait we encountered that day—to experience the new Harry Potter Escape From Gringotts ride. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s a 3-D roller coaster, with plenty of scary twists and drops for the thrill-seeker, and also with some awesome special effects and exquisite details to please anyone looking for complete immersion in the world of Harry Potter. This was our last ride of the day, and we emerged from Diagon Alley theme-parked out.

We avoided I-4 and went to one of our favorite restaurants, Sea Dog Brewing Co., for dinner. No wait, good food, and cold beer.

Sunday was our final full day of vacation, and we spent it sleeping in, going to brunch, and lounging by the pool. For dinner, we drove a few miles southwest of the area to get inexpensive gas and enjoy a hearty meal at Bob Evans. Back at the hotel, we sipped wine on the balcony and watched the nightly holiday light show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting the Orlando area during the holidays. There were crowds, yes, but we also arrived at Universal early and experienced minimum wait times during the morning. I imagine that the Disney parks had similar, if not vaster, crowds, but it’s that time of year. Families have time off from work and school; the weather is decent in Florida (highs in the upper 70s, low humidity). People will flock to Orlando. But there are quiet moments: trying out an experience outside of the theme parks (Orlando has plenty to offer) or enjoying some downtime at the hotel. People-watching is great when you’re stuck in the crowds. It’s fun listening to the different languages spoken and observing the interactions within families…dads telling their kids not to whine; moms exhorting their little ones to use the bathroom before standing in line. Somehow, no fights break out, despite the crowds, the waits, and the heat, and everyone mostly respects what little personal space exists.

It’s not magical—nothing ever is—but spending time in touristy area can be enjoyable and relaxing…even over the winter holidays.

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Embrace That First Draft

From Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (great writing resource!):

It’s called the vomit draft, too, because it will both stink and be pretty much everything you’ve got inside you. In there is beauty and success and everything you’ve ever dreamed of. So learn to love a vomit draft like it’s your new best gal.

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A new project begun!

Fifty-thousand words in about 20 days is taxing on the wrists. But I started a new project, one I’ve hesitated writing for a long time. Now was a good time and NaNo a good reason to write the SFD (“shitty first draft” in Anne Lamott-speak). I probably have another 10K-15K to write, and then I will put it away for a little while to rest before reviewing it and starting the second draft, etc. Fellow writers know how it goes.

In the meantime, I have a historical project to begin researching, a flash piece to revise, and I continue to see rejections from agents for novel #1. Plus, I sent out the last story from my grad school days to five journals. We’ll see where that goes. I’m hoping to find a home for it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends, and happy November to everyone!

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NaNoWriMo 2014: Are you in?

I’m in this year!

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Florida Fall


Lows are in the 60s, and windows are open! We made it to the pumpkin patch yesterday and brought home some lovely pumpkins and gourds. Ready for autumn (Florida’s version, anyway).

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The Writing Journey: Querying and Multitasking

I have begun querying Be With Me, my novel/thesis/thing-I’ve-held-onto-for-way-too-long. Much like when I first started sending out short stories a couple years ago, I’m nervously checking and rechecking the query letter, agent’s email address, and the sample pages. I’ve received rejections…enough so that I’m re-doing my query letter and reconsidering my title. It’s okay. All the articles and posts I’ve read on querying recommend querying 80-100 agents before giving up; I’m on rejection #4. Perhaps the best advice I’ve read so far has been to query in batches of 6-8 agents. If you get few to no requests for a full or partial, it’s your query letter. Rewrite it! If you get requests for more pages but then receive rejections, it’s your pages. Rewrite them! A great resource for all things querying is Chuck Sambuchino, a writer and editor who writes the Guide to Literary Agents column for Writer’s Digest. Over the weekend, I read this article, paying close attention to letters for quiet, character-driven fiction.

The writing life is multi-faceted: for every completed project, there’s a new one to begin, and an ongoing one to work on. I’m revising a short story and researching more lit mags to send it to (6 rejections so far, but I haven’t sent it anywhere since last February). I have another flash piece that’s all exposition and in desperate need of a plot. I’m also doing research for my next novel. The first book I’m reading for that: The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.

There’s always something new to look forward to on this crazy writing journey!

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A Poem for Your Pleasure: Almond Blossom by D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence : The Poetry Foundation

Almond Blossom by D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence : The Poetry Foundation.

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Worth Reading #5: The Help Yourself Edition

After spending the summer watching World Cup and taking online education courses (I’ll review some of these MOOCs later), I returned to teaching in late-August. This year, I have a part-time schedule—and it works. I’m writing again, reading more, and (finally!) sending out query letters for my novel.

I’ve been exploring the world of self-help books, especially now that I feel personal and professional pressure as I approach 40. Who I am I? What do I want to be when I grow up? I was a stay-at-home mom for years, but what do I want to focus on now that my children are older? Teaching is one option. I taught the year after I graduated college in a traditional classroom environment. Currently, I work at a learning center with a small academy, and I mostly teach 1:1 students. I love the flexibility of my job and the working environment. Then there’s writing, which is something that I will always do. But can I turn it into a lucrative career? Judging by the amount of rejection letters I have received recently, I’m not sure. But it is a process I will pursue.

Fueled by indecision and self-doubt, I researched motivational books and discovered two that are worth reading. Hal Elrod’s The Miracle Morning champions personal productivity before 8 AM. Indeed, Elrod claims that if you engage in a series of rituals daily, you can transform your life. I’m usually up by 5 AM on weekdays, and I was curious to see if engaging in this practice would help me focus. I started doing Elrod’s Life S.A.V.E.R.S. daily (Silence, Affirmations, Visualization, Exercise, Reading, Scribing/Writing) when I first got up. Okay, I didn’t exercise, but I tried to do the other activities. While my life wasn’t dramatically transformed—and to be fair, it’s only been a few weeks, and Elrod recommends following the program for a minimum of 30 days—I ended up making some important decisions regarding my professional trajectory. One of these decisions was to complete the last revisions on my novel and start querying agents.

The second book I read (much of it during my Miracle Morning reading time) was The One Thing by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan. Keller convincingly claims that in order to achieve greatness, you should only focus on ONE thing for each of your life paths (family, spiritual, professional, etc.). By making this one thing the priority, by blocking off time and energy to focus solely on “it,” you will achieve success, and the rest of your life will fall into place. While reading this book, I was intrigued by the fact that the “one thing” could be anything, that it wasn’t just limited to a professional/business goal. I plan to reread this book because once isn’t enough to absorb the valuable information within. After initial reflection, I know that writing needs to be my “one thing.” How I will make it that, I’m not entirely sure. Hence, my plan to reread both books.

Have you read any self-help books? Which ones do you find worthy?

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On the Banks of (the muddy and rising) Plum Creek: A Weekend on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Trail

It began, as all good road trips do, with drinks and dinner. My friend Tina was in Florida on business, and our conversation veered from books we were currently reading to beloved childhood books. The Little House books came up, followed by the Betsy-Tacy series, books that we both had read. “A trip to Mankato is on my bucket list,” I said. “I live an hour from Mankato,” Tina said. “Next summer, let’s do it.” About a year later, we were following the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway: U.S. Route 14, beginning in Pepin, Wisconsin, and ending in De Smet, South Dakota.

The muddy, rising Plum Creek, just outside of Walnut Grove, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Day One, Friday, June 13th. Minneapolis: I arrived in Minneapolis early that afternoon and checked into the Bloomington Courtyard by Marriott hotel, just a few minutes from the Mall of America. The shuttle driver told me to expect severe weather that weekend, but it was sunny and cool that afternoon. After some downtime, I went over to the mall. The Mall. Wow. People, lots of people, an aquarium, an amusement park. So many stores, so many Caribou Coffees. It overwhelmed me, and I found a quiet spot in Barnes and Noble to review the map and get my bearings. I slowly wandered the first floor, stopping to gawk at the indoor amusement park and to buy gifts for my kids. Later, Tina and I met up for more walking and dinner at Crave. I had the walleye, a local fish. Delicious.

Lake Pepin, WI, early Saturday morning. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Lake Pepin, WI, early Saturday morning. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

The rebuilt Little House in the Big Woods (the Big Woods cleared a long time ago), outside of Pepin, WI. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

The rebuilt Little House in the Big Woods (the Big Woods cleared a long time ago), outside of Pepin, WI. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Day Two, Saturday, June 14. Minneapolis to Mankato:  Tina picked me up at the hotel, and we hit the road by 8:00 AM. Our schedule was fairly tight: the Betsy-Tacy homes were only open from 1:00-3:00, and we wanted to visit the Big Woods site in Pepin, WI, first. We took the scenic roads that followed the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to Wisconsin. Fun fact: Lake Pepin is the widest spot on the Mississippi. The day was cool and overcast; rain threatened but didn’t hit until mid-afternoon. We reached Pepin, a charming village along the lake. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum was closed when we arrived (as was the nearby winery), so we drove seven miles to the Ingalls’ homesite in the Big Woods. Now, it is rolling farmland, but here and there, one can see patches of thick woods and imagine Pa hunting a bear or panther. We walked around the rebuilt little house. Back in town, we visited the museum, which contained a few items belonging to Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Most of the collection, the museum employee told us, is found at Laura’s home in Mansfield, Missouri. We left Pepin and drove to Rochester, Minnesota, where we picked up U.S. Route 14, which would take us west to Walnut Grove and then to De Smet. But, first, a stop along the way in Mankato, the fictional Deep Valley of Maud Hart Lovelace’s wonderful Betsy-Tacy series.

MHL marker, looking down the hill to Tacy's (Bick's) house, Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

MHL marker, looking down the hill to Tacy’s (Bick’s) house, Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Betsy's house with the original maple tree to the left, Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Betsy’s house with the original maple tree to the left, Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

We began the tour in Tacy’s home,the actual home of Bick Kenney, Maud Hart Lovelace’s real-life best friend. While waiting, we browsed the store and chatted with the volunteers. A group of mothers our age and their teenage daughters joined us for the tour; the mothers had read the books, but their daughters had not. Our tour guide brought us across the street to the Hart home (Betsy’s house), which was furnished with some original furniture along with pieces belonging to the Lovelaces (Maud and Delos). Each room had a sketch from the books to show the accuracy of Lois Lenski’s (the first four books’ illustrator) drawings. Our guide explained how the Betsy-Tacy Society used these illustrations during the restoration of the two homes.

Delicious! The Marquette Reserve from Chankaska Wines, north of Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Delicious! The Marquette Reserve from Chankaska Wines, north of Mankato, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

We finished off the afternoon at a local winery, followed by dinner, drinks, and live music at the NaKato in North Mankato.

Exterior of the museum in Walnut Grove, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Exterior of the museum in Walnut Grove, MN. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Prairie view from the observation deck of the homestead site, De Smet, SD. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Prairie view from the observation deck of the homestead site, De Smet, SD. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Day Three, Sunday, June 16. Mankato to De Smet: We awoke to rain and fog in Mankato and drove west to Walnut Grove, the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek. The clouds lifted as we crossed the prairie, and by the time we reached Walnut Grove, the sun was shining and a good wind blew. We stopped at the next Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Like the Pepin museum, this one had only a few items belonging to the Ingalls-Wilder families, but what it lacked in artifacts, it made up for with an excellent display documenting the family’s history and linking it to the events in the books. There was also a room devoted to “The Little House on the Prairie” television series. We left the main building and visited a sod house, a one-room school, and another small home from this time period (none of these structures were ever occupied by the Ingalls family). After an hour or so, we were ready to make like Pa and head west. Before leaving town, we stopped at Plum Creek to see the dugout site. The creek was muddy and rising; the property owner drove out to shut down the site due to flooding. I recalled the scene where Laura nearly drowns in the rushing creek.

It was at this moment when I felt a connection to Laura, imagining the excitement and anxiety the family must have felt when preparing to move…again. Wisconsin, Kansas, back to the Big Woods, Minnesota, Iowa, back to Walnut Grove, and then on to De Smet. Tina and I drove west in a rented Chevy Cruze, past lakes and through wind farms on Buffalo Ridge. Further west into endless prairie dotted with shallow pothole lakes. What would it have been like to cross a then-treeless prairie in a covered wagon?

We reached the Ingalls Homestead a mile outside of De Smet, paid $10 each, and explored the land that once had been Charles Ingalls’ claim, now owned by a private family and converted into a living museum. At first, I was worried that the experience would be too commercial, but there were barn cats, and miniature horses, and a wagon ride, and a self-described “Laura whore” who served as narrator and tour guide of the rebuilt Ma’s Little House. It was entertaining and educational, and the prairie vista was spectacular, so open and endless.

We ate dinner at the Oxbow in downtown De Smet and spent the night at the Super Deluxe Inn and Suites. Before turning in, we visited the cemetery to pay our respects to the Ingalls resting there (Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace).

Pa's (Charles Ingalls') house, De Smet, SD. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Pa’s (Charles Ingalls’) house, De Smet, SD. (Katherine Hart, 2014)


Day Four, Monday, June 17th. De Smet to Minneapolis: We had to depart De Smet by 11:00 AM so I could make my 5:30 PM flight out of Minneapolis. We enjoyed a light breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and drove to the other Ingalls’ site, this one with the actual houses where the family had lived. We visited the Surveyor’s House that the Ingalls family stayed in when they first settled in South Dakota (On the Shores of Silver Lake), the school that Laura and Carrie attended (The Long WinterLittle Town on the Prairie), and the house that Pa built after Laura and Almanzo married. By the time we departed, the sky to the southwest was dark with thick clouds (the edge of the same storm that spawned the twin Nebraska tornadoes), and we said good-bye to the prairie and all its little towns. Across Buffalo Ridge (the wind turbines bright white against the gray sky), back into lake territory (bluffs and woods), and soon we returned to the city.

Avoiding storms on Monday's trip back to Minneapolis. Not the greatest shot, but these are some mammatus clouds on the horizon. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Avoiding storms on Monday’s trip back to Minneapolis. Not the greatest shot, but these are some mammatus clouds on the horizon. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Ordering dinner off an iPad at Mimosa in MSP Terminal G. (Katherine Hart, 2014)

Ordering dinner off an iPad at Mimosa in MSP Terminal G. (Katherine Hart, 2014)


If you go:

The Books: Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, and Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (links for entire series)

Minneapolis: I wish I had more time to explore this city. Next time! There are plenty of hotels in and around the Twin Cities. I stayed in Bloomington, near the airport and the Mall of America, and there were lots of hotels and restaurants in this area. I had a great dinner at Crave in the mall.

Mankato: Mankato is a small city with several hotels. We stayed at the Best Western in North Mankato (indoor pool and good breakfast buffet). We had a great meal (burgers, fried cheese curds, and shandies) at the NaKato Bar & Grill. About 20 minutes outside of Mankato is the Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery. Great wine, gorgeous tasting room, and a delicious tasting menu.

De Smet: We stayed at the comfortable De Smet Super Deluxe Inn & Suites and enjoyed dinner across the street at the Oxbow Restaurant (which was the only restaurant open on Sunday night). Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met are in De Smet. Seriously, I love Midwestern hospitality.

On the road: There are plenty of fast food restaurants along Highway 14. In smaller towns, you are likely to find a Dairy Queen next to a Subway (we opted for DQ’s $5 lunch special, complete with a hot fudge sundae). Brookings, SD, has a nice selection of larger chains. We grabbed lunch at Culver’s on the way back to the airport. We also stopped at Renee’s Kitchen on beautiful Lake Benton.

The Little Houses: Here are the links to the sites we visited along the way, including the Betsy-Tacy homes.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Pepin, WI

The Betsy-Tacy Society, Mankato, MN

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and surrounding sites, Walnut Grove, MN

The Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, SD

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes, De Smet, SD

* Information about the Ingalls family grave sites, the Wilder homestead claim, and all other things Laura (Where was the Big Slough? What happened to Silver Lake?) is readily available at both De Smet visitor sites.


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Revisiting My Favorites 2: Flowers in the Attic and Crystal Singer

I had intended to make this an occasional series on the blog. Needless to say, nearly a year has passed since I first commented on what it was like to revisit books and movies that I loved years ago. I blame my second time as a first-year teacher – lesson planning, late nights – all the stuff I love to do but that which takes up so much time! But I’m here again with two recent revisits.

I reread Flowers in the Attic this spring after watching the Lifetime movie. The adaptation was pretty good and followed the book’s plot closely, with the exception of the children’s escape. Wondering how it held up, I reserved a copy of the novel at the library. It is still a popular checkout, as my copy didn’t show up for several weeks. I first read Flowers in seventh grade; I read the entire series several times, in fact. Along with the Clan of the Cave Bear books, this series was the one we passed around at sleepovers and in the school cafeteria. There were “juicy parts,” the torrid, sometimes incestuous, sex scenes. When I started reading it this time around, I wondered how the story would hold up. Were we just reading it for the dirty scenes? Or was there a compelling story somewhere in there?

I was pleasantly surprised by my rereading of Flowers. Yes, parts of the story were overwritten; the dialogue, especially, made me cringe. But there was enough creepiness (evil grandparents, a horrible mother) to keep me turning the pages. Even though I knew how the novel ended (spoiler alert!), my heart still raced when Chris, Cathy, and Carrie finally left captivity and fled Foxworth Manor. This time around, I was more sensitive to the horrors of the child abuse portrayed in the story, and I saw a darkness in Cathy that I had not noticed when reading this book as a young adult. Back then, she was a sympathetic character; now, I saw shadows of her mother, Corrine, in her actions and thoughts. 

I quickly skimmed through a couple of the sequels but didn’t find them as compelling as the original story. In fact, my former favorite of the series, Petals on the Wind, was disappointing. Too much ballet, not enough revenge. And when Cathy finally confronts Corrine, it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as I remembered. The scene seemed rushed and melodramatic. So, thumbs-up to Flowers in the Attic, but a big yawn for its sequels.

Anne McCaffrey was another of my favorite authors when I was in junior high and high school. I read all of the Dragon series, Crystal Singer books, and even some of her short fiction. I read her stories and was filled with wonder. They brought me to a magical, sometimes mystical, sometimes holy place, and I never really left. Those books haunted me. In all of them, I always clung to the romantic relationships, many times at the expense of the rest of the story. That’s why it was such a delight to pick up Crystal Singer and realize that it still felt new and fresh to me, that because I had latched on to the romantic parts the first time, I had missed an incredible journey story. This time around, I appreciated the world-building, the sense of discovery, the possibility of crystals being used for interstellar communication. I loved watching Killashandra grow; I wasn’t reading quickly to find her next romantic liaison. The novel satisfied me more as an adult. I am now rereading Killashandra Ree and hope it is just as good as its predecessor. 

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