30 March 2010

The Echoing Grove (Rosamond Lehmann)

I am going home soon, to my family, my friends, my bedroom, my books. I brought one book away with me two years ago when I left Australia. Which book did I deem most fitting to accompany me on my backpacking endeavours?

Since you ask- I brought On The Road, by Jack Kerouac. Oh yes, I can hear the universal groans even from Acton, one of the most acoustically imbalanced areas in London. This is due to the most unfortunate combination of the A40, the Heathrow flight path, three intersecting train lines and the neighbour's illegal parrot aviary.

I can still remember the reasoning behind bringing the Kerouac. My appearance, my expectations, dreams and aspirations all played a part in choosing to bring On The Road. It was a terrible, terrible decision. Yes, the book is brilliant. Hilarious and epic, it makes you want to clench your fists and run. THE FIRST TIME YOU READ IT. At last count I owned three different editions of this book. None of the subsequent readings were comparable to my first foray into Kerouac's world (not even the original scroll) so what the hell I was thinking I really don't know.

When you're travelling you want something that speaks to your soul, is comforting but not gushing, a book you recognise yourself in. It needs characters who are sympathetic but flawed, a plot that has momentum but doesn't gallop, a denouement that satisfies but doesn't pacify.

The novel I SHOULD have brought with me is The Echoing Grove, by Rosamond Lehmann. The story is about Rickie Masters, his marriage to Madeleine and his affair with her sister Dinah. The sisters reach an impasse when Rickie is killed unexpectedly and both must deal with the fallout of a situation both had already found hopeless.

In the interest of full disclosure, I saw the film before I read the book. The cast includes Paul Bettany, which is how I came across the story in the first place. Bettany makes me sympathise completely with Rickie and hope for his happiness- if I had read the book first I may have found Rickie hard to like. The film changes little of the script and plot so it is Bettany's brilliance which makes me see the frailty and beauty in Rickie when I later read the novel.

Lehmann's prose is often described as gentle, although I wouldn't agree with that. I'd say it's more akin to the old velvet glove/iron fist style of doing things. Writing like this reminds you of why male authors really shouldn't write from the female perspective in stories of great love. Madeleine and Dinah are entirely unique yet nothing they think or do would feel aberrant to my character were I to emulate them. The sinking feeling both of them experience with the knowledge that they cannot help but move into something that will cause them only heartbreak is devastating yet, as the reader, you agree that they have no choice.

This may seem to you a rather odd book to classify as 'comforting'. Well, this is my brand of comforting. I have always found more solace in the depressingly meaningful than the vacuously upbeat. Of course, I probably would have been most comforted and sustained on my travels if I had ignored Earhart's insistence that everybody would laugh at me and purchased the blanket with sleeves in duck-egg blue that I really wanted. I bowed to convention and coolness, but I still think about that blanket. I haven't been able to find one since.

Rating: 9/10.

Guess what?

Stephenie Meyer is attempting to make even more money from the legions of twitarded fans who just can't get enough of her blood-sucking stories. A character she kills off in Eclipse is apparently getting her own novella. Completely justified, considering that Bree just leapt off the pages and into my heart with the three lines she was given in book three.

If you want to read exactly the same information I have just given you but on the more reliable Guardian website, click here. You'll also get some extraneous details you didn't need and a picture of Meyer's smiling, bigoted mug.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Rainer Maria Rilke)

I am a creature of extremes. Some days, I will achieve nothing. Yes, I will rise. Eat. Continue to exist. Ensure none of the children left in my care catch on fire. But those little yellow slips listing activities to achieve will remain depressingly devoid of bright red ticks. Years ago I worked out the trick. If I do just ONE THING on one of those lists I will inevitably do everything I wanted to achieve that month in a single day. ONE THING is all it takes to get the ball rolling.

This morning, my friends, that ONE THING was deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs. Frozen caramel eggs, wrapped in doughnut batter, deep-fried. I could attempt to justify these mini odes to heart failure, but I fear any defence I cobbled together would essentially be semantically null. I had promised the kiddywinks an Easter treat and, having delivered what can only be described as the Best Easter Treat That Ever There Was, I immediately rolled onto the next thing on my list- my next review!

I apologise so very much for the lack of posting this year. A friend who reads the blog regularly confessed that he now diligently reads every book we post about. Considering the speed of his reading and the turtle-slowness of our reviewing he is filling in the gaps with In Search of Lost Time. Kudos to N in that this is probably the best way to read Proust. I read all seven volumes one after the other and by the end of it my amazement with the prose was rather over-shadowed by my great desire for Proust to have run out of paper and ink about ten thousand words earlier.

Today, however, is not about good old Marcel. Nor is it about deep-fried Cadbury's Caramel Eggs (thank you Peabody), contrary to what the first part of this post may indicate. It is about Malte, the overly morbid and depressing young narrator of the German poet Rilke's only novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

I am in the very bad habit of scribbling on books that I read. It's because I am an English major. Mostly it is incoherent scribbling, but I do like to underline little bite-sized lettered gems that tickle my fancy. If I were to do this in Notebooks, entire pages would be underlined. For Rilke, plot seems to be largely irrelevant, especially the establishment of any discernible linear structure to said plot. Instead, each paragraph tackles a new idea afresh, with characters only occasionally overlapping. An unknown man in a hospital waiting room is given as much importance as Malte's father, demonstrating the author's erratic fixation of topics as well as Malte's emotionally absent state.

As a result of this format, this became a novel I was able to pick up and put down, which is helpful when taking into consideration my line of work, the London transport system and my woefully short attention span. One particular topic Malte expounds on is the 'woman who is left behind', when her lover betrays her or is brutally slain in battle (obviously there are quite a few other ways in which she can be left behind but those two in particular spring to mind.) There is a bemused worshipping of women that occurs throughout the novel, Malte seems to understand women all too well, he is startlingly sensitive when talking about them, but his tentativeness seems to suggest he suspects women (as a whole) could turn on him at any time. This timidity probably stems from the fact his mother used to dress him up as a girl and refer to him as Sophie.

You can see why Rilke is known as a poet rather than an author- this is really a collection of lengthy prose poetry, without any rhythm or structure. So, poetry written by someone who couldn't actually be bothered to write poetry. Notebooks is perhaps the actual notes of Rilke, who, jotting down ideas for his poetry and subsequently realising just how many genius thoughts he had, saw the task of turning them into poetry too gargantuan. Having already achieved some fame as a poet, he decided to take a punt and see if the publisher would take his word for it that this was a novel, rather than his riverside scribblings.

Rating: 7/10.

21 March 2010

The Song is You (Arthur Phillips)

Two posts in one evening... I must be feeling better. As you will all know, I am battling another case of bronchitis. You will all know because I whinge about it on a relatively regular basis. I haven't been feeling up to staying up past eight o'clock and reviewing. This is proving problematic considering I am leaving London in six weeks time. Attempting to cram in quality time with friends I may not see for years and years is hard when you are slumped over the table, weakly waving away offers of an ambulance (friend J is particularly twitchy when it comes to medical matters) and coughing so much you can hear your lungs bouncing off your ribcage (true story!). However, I am now feeling much better, although I am reluctant to give up the marvellous and miraculous cough medicine I have been taking at night. It puts me in an extremely deep sleep about twenty minutes after dosage and I have been waking up this past week feeling well-rested, which I don't think I've felt since Christmas. But it's the dreams that have me coming back for more. Never have I had such vivid, interesting dreams, with the perfect balance of the surreal and the familiar. Not too much menace- enough to keep things interesting, but ultimately not too unsettling. The sort of dreams where you're being chased by a shark but then you find chocolate cake.

I have taken this marvellous medicine (Alcott's not George's) and thus do not exactly have an elegant sufficiency of time to finish this review before I drop off. Probably then, we can all agree that the paragraph I just wrote above was an ill-advised way to spend my limited time.

The Song is You is the sort of novel you want to love but you suspect, before you have even opened the covers, that it is going to be a grave disappointment. A man who uses music to define all the most important moments in his life. A romance with an Irish singer. Reviewers gasping to make their accolades more adoring than everyone else's.

To my happy, happy surprise, the novel was beautiful. A deeply romantic love story told with impeccable modern prose. The musical references throughout felt organic rather than affected or, (as I suspected they might be), a pathetic attempt by the author to prove how hardcore and bohemian he is. Phillips manages to make Julian's attachment to his iPod merely a part of the character rather than a grating plot hook. This is harder than it looks. In many ways it is the easy way out to write historical fiction, where there are thousands of sources to draw from when looking for guidance on the forms of expression that work most eloquently. Internet technology, modern slang and pop culture are infinitely harder to include in effortless prose.

The love story itself has two main elements that prevent it from falling into twee territory. The first is the slight seediness and underground feel to the romance. Julian is much older than Cait, the young singer he has fallen for. He stalks her, lets himself into her apartment, cooks her dinner without having been introduced and leaves an indentation of his head in her pillow so she won't feel so alone. I had chills for a lot of these scenes, but I was always most panicked when I thought the police were going to catch him. "They're going to arrest him and they won't realise he's doing everything out of love!" I thought, distressed. (Although, it must be noted, this is probably the excuse of every stalker out there.)

The other aspect of the romance which made it all the more engaging was the refusal of Phillips to indulge the expectations I have as a Generation Y Instant Gratification Brat. Julian and Cait embody the typical Girl Meets Boy Plus Obstacles scenario, except that the girl doesn't actually physically meet the boy until the end of the novel. This restraint on the part of the characters (because it is a decision they both contribute to) is INFURIATING for the reader but also strangely exciting and compelling. After all, wanting something and being denied it only makes you want it more.

If there are some loose ends not tied up as neatly as I would have liked, if there are some characters that I felt needed further development, that all seems rather irrelevant when you can read a book that actually delivers what it promised to do- tell a love story that is determined to be of this time, a love story that nevertheless reaffirms that romances like these are as old as the songs that are sung about them.

Rating: 8/10.

Some Prefer Nettles (Junichirō Tanizaki)

There will be a shadow of discontent hovering over this review, I must warn you now. However, for the neat purposes of a chronological format I shall only be addressing the source of my discontent towards the end of the review. If you read Earhart and I mainly for our negativity rather than the disgustingly obsequious prose we regularly dedicate to those authors who are lucky enough to have nestled into our hearts, I would recommend skipping ahead a few paragraphs.

I am on a bit of a Japanese kick at the moment. A friend recently expressed interest in reading more about Japan, having discovered that I lived there for a short period. Being of a reasonably youthful age at the time (I probably couldn't say my r's properly at that point) I don't feel all that guilty about the fact I didn't spend my time reading everything I could lay my hands on from the Japanese Canon. Of course, now that I can, in fact, skip my way through Ring a Round a Rosy with only limited amounts of angst (any child's game referencing the Bubonic Plague will always leave me feeling slightly uneasy) I feel I am ready to take on Junichirō Tanizaki, considered by many to be Japan's greatest novelist of the 20th century.

Some Prefer Nettles was written in 1929, at a time in Tanizaki's life when he was experiencing deep disillusionment with the Western customs he had so eagerly embraced in his earlier career. The novel tells the story of a Tokyo gentleman (Kaname) who has long fallen out of love with his wife Misako. He feels no desire for her whatsoever and we are subjected to these rather depressing scenes where he lies awake at night listening to his wife sob herself to sleep. She has taken a lover and the two plan to divorce, but both are so unbelievably retarded by indecision and cowardice that neither will actually take the first step and initiate the proceedings.

The third player in this low-level melodrama is Misako's father, a traditionalist who holds great faith in the calming and restorative powers of returning to one's Japanese cultural roots. He himself has taken a very young lover (O-hisa) and spends his time lecturing her on how to play the samisen to greater effect, how to pour tea, how to massage his shoulders, how to BATHE PROPERLY (soap is a big no-no, for best results use a bran bag) etcetera. To her eternal credit, O-hisa does not end up murdering him in his sleep. I would have suffocated him with the bran bag.

What follows is not exactly what I was lead to expect, having read the blurb. Of course, one must be very careful when going by the blurb on a Japanese novel, especially one that has been translated by someone who is not the original author. Japanese novels are inherently very different to any Western novels I have read. Plot is a consequence of the natural momentum generated by well-written characters and trains of thought, rather than the driving motive of the author. Like writing a detailed blurb about a book of haiku, it is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly what this novel is about. Yes, a breakdown of a marriage. But also the beauty of a puppet theatre. The purity of white food set against polished lacquer. The poetry of cherry blossoms. The bitter poignancy of a child's premature wisdom.

Try getting any of those past a marketing department.

However, as beautiful and lilting as the prose was, I have not fallen in love with this novel. At 4 in the afternoon today I was at a swimming carnival, pretending to watch whilst actually finishing my novel. I arrived at the denouement and could not believe what I was seeing. The novel finishes mid-thought. Mid-paragraph. Admittedly, at least, it does not finish mid-sentence. I was enraged. So abrupt is the ending, not once did I think that it was actually meant to be like that. I decided I had purchased a faulty copy, missing at least two or three more pages. I came home and started trolling the internet.

I was wrong. The novel ends where it's supposed to end.

Now, there are ambiguous endings. There are sudden endings. But this is a whole different kettle of fish. Having no idea what I am supposed to take from the ending I have flicked through the book again, searching for clues. I have plotted out different ways it could have ended. I have reached a few conclusions, none of which can be substantiated because I have nothing in print to back me up! (And Tanizaki is long dead, so I can't plague him for answers. Typical).

Of course, this is perhaps how one is supposed to react upon reaching the conclusion of Some Prefer Nettles. It is possible that the novel sets the reader up for exactly this reason- to make them have a relatively subdued tantrum poolside and then to make up their own minds. A novel directly in opposition to the spoon-feeding genre.

I'm still nursing some residual anger over it, but I think I understand what Tanizaki was doing. Kazuo Ishiguro says that writing novels should be like writing songs, with no need to justify why something is written the way that it is. This is, of course, only a valid argument if the piece you are talking about is written well; if it is incredibly confusing and rubbish to boot then you can safely begrudge the author the hours you wasted on them. With Tanizaki, whether or not you feel the abrupt ending is justified, I can vouch for the fact that everything you read up until then is worth your time and effort.

I may actually post a link here to Ishiguro's interview during The Sydney Writer's Festival 2009- you can watch just highlights or the entire hour if you wish. (Or, if you're feeling rebellious, nothing at all). I found it extremely interesting and, as an aspiring writer, rather valuable in terms of insight. Ishiguro has often listed Tanizaki as one of his strongest Japanese influences, so this part of the review is not entirely out of left wing.

I have just realised this review is almost as long as the book itself. Clearly I am not Japanese and have much to learn in the art of minimalist prose.

Rating: 8/10.

16 March 2010

Twenties Girl (Sophie Kinsella)

Every so often you pick a book off a shelf, ignoring the glitz and sparkle of the front cover. You skate past the sad details of the effervescent heroine's life; you ignore the fact that the gushing review on the back comes from Cosmopolitan; you most certainly allow temporary insanity to take over as you grudgingly raise your eyebrows at the description of the love-interest and, miraculously, it is all worth it. The book turns out to be witty instead of that perfectly damning word 'funny', inspiring instead of merely big-hearted, diverting instead of ridiculous.

This happens very rarely with chick-lit. Normally this is a genre that is abominable at best. Sophie Kinsella has, in the past, proven herself a cut above the rest in the literary plains of pink mediocrity. Mainly because she is gorgeously funny, not because she talks about Things That Matter. There was a chickpea incident in The Undomestic Goddess... they were overcooked when she was trying to make hummus... ANYWAY. You probably had to be there.

So, battling yet ANOTHER chest infection (I don't want to leave London, yet I am so excited to be going back to Australia for at least a short while where my poor, weak, asthmatic lungs don't have to do battle with the elements every freaking minute of my existence) I decided the new Sophie Kinsella was perfect to get me through a day or two in bed.

It was not. It was SHITE. Ghosts. A mysterious necklace. A stupid heroine. A two-dimensional love-interest. Several cringe-worthy scenes involving said ghost, the Charleston and an eighty-five year old lipstick. Kinsella will be hearing from my lawyer soon because this novel pushed me over the brink from sick to manically depressed. (It's a fine line with me. I am not a good patient.)

In an embarrassing comparison, I also read Skulduggery Pleasant during my convalescence. I told Earhart I was most jealous about the fact she was able to meet Derek Landy last month, author of this overly excellent series for children. Of course, I realised I hadn't actually read any of this series and thus stole the first book off a nine year old I know.

I can now add 'skeleton detective' to my list of things that I Like Very Much. I am slightly concerned about Skulduggery's burgeoning friendship with a young teenage girl. Aside from the legal aspects, it is the possibility of future acts of necrophilia that REALLY worries me. However, Derek Landy is a professional. I am sure he will handle any such scenes with the appropriate tact and class.

Although a children's book, the dialogue, language and structure are streets ahead of Sophie Kinsella. The humour is sharper, the plot tighter and the characters more believable. Yes. Skulduggery Pleasant and Ghastly Bespoke are more realistic than Ed and Lara. POOR EFFORT Sophie.

Next up- Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Twenties Girl- 4/10.

Skulduggery Pleasant- 7/10.

10 March 2010

A Song in The Daylight (Paullina Simons)

This is what happens when you spend two years away from the book trade. Whilst in the past 16 months I have become an absolute virtuoso in the art of 'pretending to care during child-related activities', a masterchef from the school of 'Dinner in 10 Minutes or Less' and a champion in the competitive sport of 'Saving Your Tears for the Privacy of Your Loft', I have NO IDEA what books are out at the moment.

Thus, it was with a squeal of delight that I realised Paullina Simons had a new novel out. Generally speaking, Simons is a very misunderstood author. The publicity and marketing drongos who represent Paullina need to ACTUALLY READ one of her books. Look at these covers-

I would go straight for these books only if I had a 39 hour plane trip ahead of me and needed to mindlessly fill the hours. However, I would be disappointed. The reader who buys these covers is not prepared for what lies between them- emotionally destructive tragedies of the heart and mind. The epic struggle of the modern American writer who cannot help but mine her depressing Russian heritage. Extremely explicit sex scenes. (Not the sort of thing you want the person next to you catching a glimpse of. My ex-boyfriend once read one and expressed absolute horror and disgust at what he deemed to be highly inappropriate reading for me.)

I digress...

Marketing gripes aside, I was ridiculously excited to get A Song in the Daylight. Friday afternoon a few weeks ago I made a trip to Sainsbury's and bought the necessities: iced coffee, KitKats and apples. I cancelled my weekend plans. Friday evening, after my duties with the children were complete, I curled up in bed. I opened the covers, already shivering slightly. I took one last look through my skylight at the grey world, anticipating I would next view it from the highly charged emotional state of the post-Paullina meltdown I normally experience at the denouement of her novels.

48 hours later I scoffed one last scoff and slammed the covers shut.

It started off well enough. Larissa, the beautiful, discontent housewife, meets the young, dangerously sexy Kai. Should she leave with him, or stay behind to be with her husband and children? It could have been compelling, if Larissa was in any way likeable. However, instead of a heroine I could sympathise with, I got a heroine who disgusted me with every turn of the page. Selfish, weak, whiny, spiteful, vacuous and stupid. Who cares whether she goes or stays? I didn't become attached to her children or husband enough to worry about their fate. Kai, I felt, was too two-dimensional to warrant the drama he created. He ate sushi! He drove a motorcycle! SWOON. The only interesting characters in the novel were given extremely limited page space, making it hard to care about them either. Maggie and her kidney problem was a particularly unnecessary waste of ink.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. Che was a very interesting character, being a protester in the Philippines and all. Only problem is, that story line was completely incongruous to the rest of the plot.

Simons obviously realised the structure of the novel was a bit off, so she attempted to pull everything together in the last third. Then she realised that wasn't going to work, so she just decided to kill everyone. (Not everyone. That is hyperbolic.) Let's just say she decided to indulge in her tragic Russian side when all else failed.

Was it worth the weekend I set aside? Most definitely. Simons can still write melodrama better than anyone else out there, making it seem honest, necessary and even restrained. I get the feeling a lot of the time with Simons that her novels are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much damage she could ACTUALLY do to my heart if she really tried.

If you're a Simons fan this is of course a must-read (although you probably knew about it last September). If you are new to the Simons wagon, I would suggest picking up The Girl in Times Square first. It is my favourite other than The Bronze Horseman, but I would not recommend starting with that. That is not for the faint-hearted. I lost days crying over that book.

I didn't lose any days crying over this book. But I lost a bit of my faith in Paullina. Which is very sad indeed.

Almost, but not quite, locked under the stairs...

I ventured downstairs this evening to get a cup of coffee and came upon the people I live with, who were most surprised to see me. Much like Harry Potter, I spend my evenings "in my room, making no noise and pretending I don't exist." Thus, my occasional descent from the loft is the cause of much consternation. I have returned, disgruntled to my bedroom, thanking every denominational being ever to be suspected of existing (have I used that line before? C'est possible...) that I have less than eight weeks of work to go.

After that I shall be as a house elf is with clothes- FREE. UNLEASHED. EMANCIPATED. LIBERATED. WITHOUT SADNESS AND PAIN.

The last is perhaps stretching it slightly. I cannot blame all the greyness and blackness on Acton Town. But I am anticipating greater splashes of white and colour in May (that most joyous of months) when my contract is over.

Starting in May I will be playing the part of European cultural whore for two months, wherein I shall be utterly negligent when it comes to updating the blog. Obviously, this is already the case for both of us; 2010 did not exactly start off on a punctual note. Never fear, dearly devoted readers, we ARE committed, we are merely lazy.

However, I have an enormous backlog which I shall begin tackling tonight. I can never sleep after an unpleasant evening, I tend to go over the events that transpired below, completely certain that I did something wrong. Only when I am satisfied that I am blameless can I cease to be upset. However, I generally progress (or regress really) to anger, which is even less conducive to a restful night.

In answer to Earhart's question below, I have been embarrassed several times in meetings with authors. My Paullina Simons moment can be found here. I accidentally sat on William McIness' knee during his promotional tour for his autobiography. I asked John Boyne if he wanted to buy a copy of his own book. Stuck in a corner with Thomas Keneally, I bypassed the obvious "Schindler's Ark was AMAZING" and instead went for "Well, I really like your beard." I wrote to Alan Bennett and asked him out to lunch. (Which he declined. INORIGHT? Unbelievable.)

I think however, if I were lucky enough to meet someone like Ishiguro or Annie Proulx I wouldn't have an embarrassing moment. I would be too overwhelmed. Speech would be struck from my brain, both as a desire and an ability. To meet the tangible behind the ethereal is a frightening thing. Some authors are too great to meet. Thus, it seems I am doomed to a lifetime of falling over authors and attempting to sell them their own books; these, the authors who are comfortingly normal.

09 March 2010

Patrick Ness

So remember that ridiculously gushy not-even-a-proper-review I wrote of The Knife of Never Letting Go? Remember how I promised to review Book Two and then never did. Sorry about that - it was actually as gut-wrenchingly good as Book One and I am sure that when I read Book Three (VERY SOON if my rep does as promised and gets me the manuscript!) it will also keep me up until three in the morning.

Anyway, I met the author of this most amazing of series tonight. A bunch of the book-shop groupies and myself went along to hear him speak - the author of a YA series and there were perhaps two teenagers in the crowd. Booksellers, librarians, teachers and people from OTHER publishing houses were, however, in abundance. He spoke about writing, about where his books came from, about knife crime, terrorism and war and finished up with a few musings on joy. He read from Book Three (Oh lord, it is definitely going to be an astounding read) and then signed some copies.

In true me-meeting-authors-I-love fashion, I was suitably star struck. I like to think I conducted myself better than when I met Joanne Harris (when I said something along the lines of "This is what normal people feel when they meet a rock star!" Her response was something like 'okayyyyy... name please?') I told him I'd reviewed him on the blog. He wrote down the address (in case you actually took the scrap of paper home with you, Hi Patrick!) I spoke like a grown-up (ha! Fooled you!).

Anyway... aside from feeling the need to tell everyone I met him and he was lovely, the point of this post was actually to see if I am the only one out there who gets this star-struck with authors. Surely I am not. Surely there is someone else out there who has stammered out "Oh my god I love everything you have ever written" to an idol. Someone else who has blushed when they met a philosopher? (Hmm, maybe not. I think Stephen Law thinks I am a lunatic, but that is another story). I am sure if I met, say, Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood I wouldn't even be able to get out the most perfunctory of compliments like "Love your books". More likely I will blush bright red, stammer out my name and grin like a loon at the object of my reading affection.

So, tell me, anyone out there as nerdy as me?
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