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  1. Wow. I mean, seriously, Wow! His Bloody Project masquerades as a plot driven historical crime novel, but is in fact a character driven exploration of a 19th century Scottish crofting community were a small number of people are forced to live in close proximity despite not liking one another. You know, right from the outset, that this is going to be a bit special when there are a series of contradictory statements from the Culduie residents about the murder of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie and the prime suspect, Roddy Macrae. Every statement was written in a distinctive voice, but all steeped in the lilting West Highland diction of native Gaelic speakers. The novel then broadens into three main sections: a narrative account leading up to the murder, written by Roderick Macrae from his cell in Inverness gaol; a chapter from a book on the criminal mind by an arrogant academic from Edinburgh; and a journalistic account of the trial. Each of the three sections is distinctive and, although they cover some common ground, they each serve quite different purposes. They drip with authenticity - referencing real cases and real people - to the point that the reader wonders whether this is a fictionalisation of a true crime (it isn't). Culduie is a real place, though, which in 1869 comprised 9 crofting cottages. It is stuck in the tracks beyond Applecross which, itself, is cut off from the rest of Scotland by a 19 mile winding pass. The residents were trapped both by geography and by their tenancy to their crofts. They were effectively property of the Laird, who dealt with them only through the Factor who, in turn, dealt directly only with the constable appointed by the villagers. The community had no privacy and personal grievances were to be avoided at all costs as you couldn't hide from those you disliked. So, in this context, we see that there are problems between the Macraes and the Mackenzies. The grievances are real and as each family contains strong personalities, this is a problem for the whole community. It is known from the outset that Roddy killed Lachlan Broad, so the question for the reader is (a) how this situation came about and (b ) whether the bad guys were the Macraes or the Mackenzies. Depending how the narratives are read, either conclusion can be drawn. But to draw the conclusions is simplistic. The issue really is that of people being trapped by poverty. Roddy, with whom the reader is invited to sympathise, is at best a klutz (to coin a neologism). And in a subsistence farming community, there is really no place for a klutz. But the reader is also challenged to consider whether Lachlan Broad, portrayed by Roddy as a self-serving bully, is in fact a bad man or perhaps something of a visionary. It's complex and never quote resolved. There is also a considerable, and evenly handed, consideration of the nature of social class. To what extent is the laird a leech who profits from his crofters' misery and to what extent is he actually the social security safety net, holding the community together by subsidy. When we meet him, briefly, he is a grotesque and his factor is despised. Yet when the factor gives an account of himself at the trial, he comes across as plausible. Then, there are the inbetweeners. In particular, we meet Archibald Ross, an assistant to the laird's ghillie who fancies himself as part of the aristocratic retinue. This is a well paced novel that avoids shocking twists but still keeps the reader guessing for most of the journey. The characters are rich and the evocation of the place and period are spot on. If there is one criticism, it is that there is a particular part in the trial sequence at which everything pretty much crystallises, but the author then carries on for some pages afterwards. This may add verisimilitude as a Victorian novel, but where Victorian novels have multiple storylines to tie up, this feels like lingering on the same single line. It weakens the impact of what had been very taut up to that point. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent text. Long listed for the Booker, this deserves to go further. But perhaps the subject matter is too similar to The Luminaries to let it win. *****
  2. The North Water is a rollicking adventure story wrapped around a tale of violence, treachery and fear. Starting out in Hull, we find a whaling ship, the Volunteer, in search of crew to head off to the Arctic. As one might expect, it's a strange sort of person who signs up for such a mission. At best, it will be long, cold and cramped; at worst, it could be a one way ticket. There are promises of rewards - both the voyage fee and the prospect of claiming personal spoils along the way. As such, the men are competing against each other for those spoils, never trust one another but utterly dependent on one another for survival. And in the case of The Volunteer, the crew are fully justified in not trusting one another. What seems to start out as some alcohol infused violence in port soon starts to look like a habit. There are moments of suspense, but this is not a standard thriller. The reader learns soon enough who's who in the zoo. The real tension, then, is the interdependence when one of the crew turns out to be a monster and when some of the crew seem to be on a different mission from everyone else. The North Water is a brilliant period piece populated by larger-than-life cartoon heroes and villains, eskimos and whalefishes. And opium. There's plenty of opium. The plot keeps twisting and turning, and just as soon as the reader knows what is going on there is another paradigm shift. The narrative voice carries the whole thing through with a rare combination of earnest first person present narration and some very dry humour. This isn't a novel that feels like it's trying hard; the brilliance is in its seeming effortlessness. It's fun, even though in parts it is quite horrific. I'm pleased to see a book like this on the Booker longlist - it reminds me quite a lot of Jamrach's Menagerie from the 2011 Booker shortlist but I think The North Water takes the concept up to an even higher level. *****
  3. The mark of a great novel is one that uses a story to convey a greater sense of understanding of oneself, or of society, or of a place or a time. The Sellout represents a long and complex exploration of race in the modern day United States. This is not a plot driven novel. The plot such as it is finds our protagonist, Bonbon, aka The Sellout, living as a black farmer in a rough neighbourhood of Los Angeles formerly known as Dickens. Bonbon's mission is to resurrect the neighbourhood name through the creation of some kind of unifying identity. But given that the opening paragraphs find Bonbon on trial in the Supreme Court, it is clear that we are heading for some kind of disaster. Most of the novel is in the form of episodes through Dickens's history, narrated by Bonbon and featuring local black personalities including a former actor in racist TV programmes, a bus driver, and a writer who is re-writing classing American novels to make black characters the heroes. It's basically an opportunity for Bonbon to riff about race relations and ask some pretty difficult questions about racism in a land where some (but not many) black people rise to high office. There are questions about whether black culture should exist at all, and if it does, what should it be? Should it focus on past injustice or should it focus on some unifying aspiration for the future? In this way, the novel goes beyond simple race relations and has a pretty good think about class structures in modern American society. At the sentence level, the book is flawless. Every sentence drips with multiple meaning, innuendo and overt reference. It is tight and extremely funny. Funny, that is, if the reader can get over the discomfort of black people trying to recreate segregation in order to strengthen their cultural identity as victims of a central oppression. But if the book does have a flaw, it is that the rich sentences make for very dense blocks of text that are not digested quickly. This relatively short novel is not a quick read. Whilst actually reading the book, it is an enjoyable if tiring experience. However, the reader may find themselves having to psyche themselves up to pick the book up for a fresh session. Occasionally it can feel a bit repetitive and the reader might be tempted to wish the writer would just get on with it. Also worth mentioning that those gentle souls that get squeamish at swearing would be well advised not to pick up this book - perhaps they might consider reading Black Beauty instead. But overall this is an excellent, ambitious and valuable book that gives a really good insight into the questions facing black American culture right now. *****
  4. so longlist announced today Author (nationality) - Title (imprint) Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld) J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker) A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape) Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton) Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband) Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK) David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber) Wyl Menmuir (UK) -The Many (Salt) Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape) Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK) Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking) David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape) Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books) anyone read anything on it?
  5. All That Man Is appears to be a collection of short stories, each focusing on a male character from one of a variety of European countries who happens to be – or to be going – to a different European country. The lead characters are progressively older in each story, ranging from a British pre-University student behaving badly on an inter-railing trip through to a British grandfather seeing out his final years in the less fashionable part of Italy. All That Man Is has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, meaning that someone, somewhere thought this was a novel. I don’t see it myself; there is no continuity of narrative thread. At a stretch, I guess one could say that it is the story of human life illustrated in a number of discrete and unrelated episodes – and very sharp-eyed readers may spot the occasional detail in one story that is referenced in another – but this really is about as typical a collection of short stories as you will want to find. The collection is highly readable and some of the stories do linger in the memory. In particular, the middle aged failures stick in the mind – a British rake who lives a hand to mouth existence in an inland Croatian town whilst pretending to be a playboy; and a Russian oligarch watching his empire crumble from the deck of a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean. Most of the stories do not have much in the way of an ending. They capture a moment in time but any resolution that they might reach – and some do not even manage that – will be unsatisfactory. Perhaps that is a metaphor for life. And as can happen with collections of themed stories, they can sometimes feel a bit samey. Having everyone travelling abroad was interesting at first but it got old quite quickly. Ultimately they all seemed to boil down to men looking for (and finding) sex. That may be all David Szalay's men are, but I like to think there's more to me. ***00
  6. Not quite sure what this was all about. You can't put Jesus in the title without making people wonder how the book relates to Jesus. And having read this, I still can't see it. The boy is called Davíd. He seems to be a refugee in some unnamed Hispanic land, judging by the place names - although Estrella is very close in sound to Australia, Coetzee's adopted homeland. Davíd appears to be looked after by a man and woman who are related neither to him not to each other: Simón and Inés. Neither seems to have any character or depth, although Simón has the power to irritate by always being referred to as "he, Simón". And all three of them irritate with their accents, requiring the reader to adopt counter-intuitive pronunciations. Not all of the characters have Spanish names: two at least have Russian names. One of these Dmitri, is the fourth principal character in the novel, seeming to act both literally and metaphorically as a gatekeeper to acceptance in the Dance academy to which David is enrolled. And nothing much happens. Sure, there is murder, suspicion and a trial, but none of it feels significant. Despite this supposed action, the focus os on meandering philosophical questioning that might have some meaning but life is too short to extract it. The result is the feeling of reading a dull and disjointed book that is not being properly understood. Perhaps Coetzee would say something about casting pearls before swine, but this pig, at least, would rather he had cast corncobs. Really, unless you are some literary genius, leave well alone. **000
  7. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a fragmentary novel, comprising short vignettes as Lucy Barton looks back on her life. They are presented in a jumbled up order and time signposting is minimal. From this, the reader is supposed to get to know Lucy Barton. The concept of the extended character study is not new. In my experience, the appeal of such novels depends largely on whether the reader gets "into" the character. It is not necessary to like the character or identify with them, but it requires some degree of emotional investment. Lucy Barton didn't do it for me. In fact, such was the fragmented nature of the text that I'm not sure I ever really believed in Lucy Barton at all. She seemed unremarkable - poor white trash childhood, did well at school, married into the middle class, wrote some novels, got sick, got reunited with her mother, got old... What was missing was some kind of narrative impetus to take us from one step to the next. Instead, we are just presented with a parade of events (some of which are in fact pontifications rather than actual events) in which Lucy Barton courts sympathy for her apparent stoicism in the face of adversity. Of course, if she were really stoic, she would not go on about the misery. Maybe that's the point, but it is rather a thin point. As befits a skeletal character and a skeletal structure, this is a short novel. But for all its brevity, it feels like a slog to read. It just meanders and after the two thirds point, it becomes clear to the reader that it really isn't going anywhere. One half wonders whether the jumbled up time sequence is a device that has been deployed to create an illusion of complexity and literary worth in a work that would otherwise not have been good enough to publish. It's what Alasdair Gray did with two mediocre novels that he combined to create Lanark. And it's not as though Lucy Barton is cleverly withholding and drip-feeding vital information to control the reader's understanding of the character. The quality of the writing has been praised. At the sentence level, it may be good but it is not particularly memorable. There was some success in depicting a poor childhood being ostracised by other kids for being smelly. But for a novel of vignettes, it should be leaving a series of strong visual impressions; it fails to do so. Instead, there's just a vague memory of a pretentious writer writing about a pretentious writer being advised to write about herself. Not for me, thanks. **000
  8. Gosh this is boring. An interminable story with characters you cannot tell apart who are supposed to be fictional ciphers for a real life fictional family in Canada. Heaps of musical references and if you love Bach you might get them, but I don't. Also, interspersed with Chinese writing and poems that don't seem to add much. Creating something this dull from such an exciting period of history is an impressive achievement that has rightly been recognised by the Booker judges. *0000
  9. The thing with a character driven novel is that you have to care about the character. You don't have to like the main character, but you do have to care about them. If you don't care about them, then the novel just becomes an exercise in beating tedium at its own game. Sadly, I did not care about Sofia Papastergiadis. The first chapter was quite promising. Set in coastal Spain, there was plenty of sea and sun to brighten up the end of a long Melbourne winter. This felt like a light read, perhaps heading off in a farcical direction like Skios. Certainly, Sofia's narration seemed quite comical and having got herself stung up by medusa jellyfish and received treatment from the lifeguard whilst unknowingly flashing her breasts, there was justification in expecting comedy. Instead, we find that Sofia is deadly serious, accompanying her hypochondriac English mother to some alternative medical clinic whilst reconciling herself to the fact that her Greek father ran away when she was four. The trouble was, this Sofia was not interesting and, in fact, was not really credible. There was no underpinning logic in any of her actions, or any of the actions of the pop-up characters she meets on turning every corner. Are we really expected to believe that this shy girl manages to get into close friendships with everyone she meets? Are we expected to believe that the charlatan doctor's daughter (who works for him as a nurse) befriends her? Are we expected to believe that despite being unable to leave her mother to live her own life, she jets off to Athens whilst leaving mother at the clinic? Are we expected to believe Sofia would repeatedly swim through medusa jellyfish when their stings are so painful? And, ultimately, can we really believe in her running along the beach and getting medical treatment whilst not noticing that her bikini top has come untied? I think not. And for a while, it all seems straightforward if somewhat implausible. But then Hot Milk decides to get trippy and philosophical with everyone loving everyone else and drawing heavy metaphors from thin air. It all gets hard to follow, not helped by the fact that we have given up caring about a character in whom we do not believe and not helped by the lack of consistent behaviour on everybody's part. For all the failing in terms of character and plot, Deborah Levy does convey a great sense of place. Maybe she would be better off using this talent to write Lonely Planet guides. **000
  10. Rural Alabama in the 1920s is on the verge of electrification. Already, the pylons take the current from town to town, passing over the heads of poor farmers who think it is witchcraft. It is a power that is seen to be slightly beyond comprehension and slightly beyond control. But, for Roscoe Martin, wedded to an unforgiving wife and her family’s failing farm, it is an opportunity to evolve. With powered machinery, the farm would not just turn a profit, it could reap huge productivity dividends. With some technical know-how, it is a sinch for Roscoe to hook up into the grid, siphoning off power that would be lost anyway through onward transmission. And Wilson, the wise black farm manager seems willing to go along with it… However, the reader knows from the very opening words that it is not going to go well. The current will kill a man, and ultimately Roscoe and Wilson are called upon to pay the price. Roscoe receives injustice as his punishment far outweighs an offence that would now seem trivial; Wilson receives an injustice as he is deemed to be an accomplice to a project that would only ever have benefited Roscoe. For the first two thirds of the novel, we interleave chapters narrated by a third person, and chapters narrated directly by Roscoe from prison. This works well up to a point, and of course there is an inevitable contrast drawn between Roscoe’s incarceration for having killed a man by electrocution, and the nascent use by the prison system of the electric chair. Unfortunately, the prison chapters soon run out of much to say and both sets of chapters end up telling the backstory. It is very well told, but it does feel as though the narrative, like Roscoe’s sentence, is unnecessarily prolonged, running to 20 chapters simply to match Roscoe’s sentence. The final third of the novel abandons the chapter format and gives a first person narrative of Roscoe’s life on release. This offers plenty of opportunity to compare and contrast Roscoe and Wilson’s experiences and fortunes. It is pretty emotional in places. What it lacks, though, is any terribly cogent rationale for how things ended up as they had. This doesn’t seem to be a case of crime and punishment, or even behaviour and consequences. It just seems to be random outcomes from unjust situations with characters behaving strangely given all that we have come to know about them. This is not a bad novel; even if parts of it can feel repetitive, it is not a long novel and it mixes the bleakness with humour and sunlight. There are some interesting ideas knocking around. But overall, it doesn’t quite work; it is not as profound as it clearly hopes to be. ****0
  11. Ethan is a trawlerman, running one of only four remaining boats in a decaying Cornish village. This is not one of those picturesque cottagey villages from the tourist brochures. Instead, it seems to be a couple of rows of modern social housing, crumbling pavements, rusting wrecks of cars, and a line of abandoned container ships moored along the horizon. As likely as not, the trawlermen will end up in the pub as in their boats – any catches they land are diseased and bought up by the men from the ministry. Then, one day, the villagers see smoke coming from Perran’s chimney. Perran died years ago. They presume that someone finally bought the property and has moved in. Timothy is the poor man who has bought Perran’s place. He seems to be trying to recreate a happy holiday in the village ten years ago and bought Perran’s house, unseen, from an estate agent in the city. He imagines he and his partner Lauren will move in for a sea change. The result is open hostility. The villagers cannot accept a newcomer in their midst, and much as he tries to integrate himself, and despite some false dawns, Timothy doesn’t seem to be able to do anything right. Throughout this short novel, there is an undercurrent of menace and dark secrets. And the interleaving of the chapters from Ethan’s perspective to Timothy’s and back again lets us be sure that the menace is not misplaced. Yet the triumph of the novel is that both Ethan and Timothy are portrayed in sympathetic lights. Both are victims of their time and place; both feel aggrieved at the other’s behaviour, and there is little prospect of a rapprochement. There is, perhaps, a sense that the village feels Timothy has violated Perran’s memory by occupying his house and there is very much a feeling that history is best left in the past. Memories die with those who witnessed them; folklore is not passed on from generation to generation. This creates a horrible atmosphere where life and joy are lost as much as unhappy memories. As the novel continues, it becomes more and more surreal. We have flashbacks to Timothy’s past, and it starts to become harder to tell the present from the past; fact from fantasy – use of italics notwithstanding. By the end, we are dealing with something that is altogether strange, deeply unsettling and pretty difficult to shift from the memory. This is really a pretty special piece of writing. *****
  12. I have always found Alison Kennedy's books a bit dull, which is a shame because in real life she is a live wire with a mordantly dry wit. So I approached Serious Sweet, courtesy of its Booker longlisting, with a bit of trepidation. I needn't have worried. Perhaps it is the basic premise - a middle ranking civil servant working in Tothill Street finds himself out of favour at work and bored by his lonely home life. I was that person, right down to working in Tothill Street, way back 15 years ago. Or perhaps it is the sardonic take on London life in the 21st Century. But whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of Jon Sigurdsson. Meg Williams, on the other hand, as a clerical worker in an animal shelter felt less immediately accessible. The novel itself is a bit like Ulysses. Jon and Meg wander around London over a 24 hour period with a vague intention of meeting up but being waylaid by various people. Meg spends time in hospital, almost as a parallel to Joyce's scene in the maternity hospital. And whilst there is a love story between the two of them, what you really have is an extended study of two characters, set against a wider study of contemporary London (and the wider nation and its government). Neither Jon nor Meg is terribly likeable - Jon is pompous and Meg is a whinger - but neither is either of them contemptible. They are complex, flawed characters who are unhappy with life; the reader comes to want them to have a chance of happiness even if it is not going to be in the terms of a Hollywood Rom Com. The writing really is stellar in terms of creating a sense of person and a sense of place. Kennedy uses a device of third person narrative blended with italicised first person stream of consciousness from both Jon and Meg's perspective. There are also little vignettes dropped in of everyday city life - life in cafes, on the streets , in parks or on the Tube. This scene changing offer welcome relief from what might otherwise have felt too claustrophobic. It also offers enough hooks that anyone who has lived in London will recognise details. Kennedy has a way of making everyday details seem significant, and in such a way that the reader gets an "a-ha" moment on recognising each of those details. The novel is long; there's no getting away from that. And at times, the lack of plot driven action can feel a bit like meandering (which is, of course, what Jon and Meg are doing). There are diversions into politics, philosophy and personal history. There is a wealth of words dedicated to the gap between the personal and the public self. And at times, it can feel slow. But, again like Ulysses, if parts of the text can feel like a bit of a slog, the impression at the end is one of heartfelt beauty and grace. For the reader, it comes together as a complete experience that handsomely repays the effort it took to get there. Over the passage of time, the memory of some novels grow and others recede. I suspect this one is a grower. *****
  13. Eileen has moments of fun, but the pacing is horribly wrong. Essentially, this is supposed to be a psychological thriller. And for much of the novel - narrated by an elderly Eileen looking back on a week of her youth - there are dark hints that something cataclysmic is about to happen. And then it doesn't. And then it still doesn't. In fact, it takes 85% of the novel (thanks Kindle for the percentage counter) before anything even slightly thrilling happens. For the most part, we just have Eileen working by day as a secretary in the local juvenile prison and by night as the enabler for her alcoholic ex-cop father. Eileen is plain, probably Lesbian, and most unsympathetic in both senses of the expression. She hates her father, has no friends, is oblivious to what happens in the prison around her. She has plans to run away, but you know deep down that she won't. And this carries on for 85% of the novel. Apart from Rebecca, a glamorous new psychologist who seems to capture Eileen's imagination, nothing happens. Then, suddenly, whoosh! In one night of madness, everyone seems to start acting out of character. Perhaps it was because that one night was Christmas Eve and everyone had a good dose of festive cheer, but the action really starts. Unfortunately, it is not especially psychological or terribly thrilling. It's a single moment of reveal that doesn't really feel like sufficient payback for the reader's investment in getting to that point. And then the plot goes a bit hazy. It is really not clear what benefit the reader gets from the device of Eileen looking back on that week of her life some 50 years later. There seems to be little attempt made to learn from that week, or to re-evaluate that week in the light of the subsequent 50 years. In fact, the reader learns precisely nothing about those intervening 50 years. It just feels a bit ho hum. Look, Eileen isn't a bad book. There's nothing to actually regret in having read it, and Eileen herself is an interesting character study. She has quite a distinctive voice that does hold the attention. Some of her attitudes and actions ate comically grotesque. But at the same time, there is little that is remarkable enough to actually recommend the book and because the pacing is so badly off-centre, I imagine many readers would never actually get to the action. Odd choice for the Booker Longlist. ***00
  14. Hystopia is a little puzzle box of a book. The bulk of the text is a conspiracy theory story in an alternative history of the United States (clearly grounded in alternative reality by the survival of President Kennedy and his election to a third term in office) where Vietnam veterans are given medication to forget the horrors they have seen. This process – enfolding – does not always work and rogue veterans who resist the drug or start to unfold end up in Michigan, dodging the authorities and re-enacting the atrocities of war. Very specifically, we follow the pursuit of Rake, an unfolded vet who has hooked up with Meg Allen, Hank and Haze, by Singleton and Wendy, two officers in the Psych Corps. Singleton and Rake share a common history in Vietnam, but represent the different paths that veterans can follow, depending on whether they enfold or remain unfolded. The whole thing is quite trippy, quite violent and quite pointless. Neither side seems to have any strategic objective. Both seem to be driven by powers they don’t control. And it’s certainly not a good versus evil thing – whilst the Psych Corps clearly represent “The Man” and Rake clearly represents The Individual, Rake is a violent and abusive man who is a danger to everyone he meets. Overall, I suppose it just represents an unhappy state of affairs – how do you resolve the dilemma of society and the self – answer: don’t start here. It is very well told, switching narrative perspectives between both sides – albeit both sides told by the same strong unseen narrative voice. This allows a balance to be struck between action and editorial comment; there is a dose of philosophy coming through the narrator without having to put inauthentic expository dialogue into the mouths of the characters. But here’s the rub. The narrator, Eugene Allen, is a character himself in the bookending opening and closing sections. These portray the core as a fiction written by Eugene to reconcile himself to the fate of his sister Meg and the grief she experienced at the death of her lover, Billy, in Vietnam. We have snippets of letters, interviews with friends and neighbours, authorial notes and editorial notes. The alternative history is set clearly as fiction, with the bookended sections presented as reality. This turns the gigantic conspiracy of the novel with its titanic characters into nothing more than a personal fantasy created to spite Eugene’s sister’s unsuitable friends. Then again, the wise reader will realise that just as Rake is a character created by Eugene, so Eugene is a character created by David Means. In which case, perhaps Eugene was created just to tell the core story that might carry some greater truth… And it would be great if we could have a little blue pill that would make us forget all our troubles. Wouldn’t it? ****0
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