Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven


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A perfect apocalypseStation Eleven proof.indd

Station Eleven is a wonderful book

Arthur Leander, theatre and film star, a much marrying actor, suffers a heart attack whilst performing in an avant-garde production of King Lear in Toronto

A member of the audience, a paramedic in training, attempts unsuccessfully to keep him from dying.

A small girl, part of that avant-garde production, looks on.

Later that evening, the unstoppable, virulent pandemic waiting to happen, which may end it for us all, in these days of endless global travel, makes its presence felt, and everything is forever changed

By twenty years after the event, life in a depopulated world is reduced to small collections of people on the margins.

The major focus of the novel concerns a small group of artists, the Travelling Symphony – actors and musicians, travelling in horse drawn vehicles, performing classical music and Shakespeare, because “Survival is Insufficient”

King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream figure, but so too, almost as an undercurrent, does The Tempest – a sense of, at the end ‘O brave new world that has such people in’t’. Not to mention the creator of Station Eleven itself.

There is also a mysterious prophet, running a millennial cult, ruling by peddling lies of special redemption for the chosen men, and taking young girls as his ‘brides’, in the way that such cults, and their leaders, have often done

There is a beautifully drawn handcrafted comic ‘Station Eleven’ whose limited volumes feature a station in the vastness of space, the world having suffered an apocalypse. Dr Eleven looks majestically into the end times.

Comic panels and Book Cover artwork by Nathan Burton, nathanburtondesign.com

Comic panels and Book Cover artwork by Nathan Burton, nathanburtondesign.com

Out of this is woven the most beautiful narrative, full of hope as well as grief and despair.

This is not (just) the normal gritty realism of how-we-will-return-to-savagery-and-the-rule-of-brute-force when the end days come, and the world as we know it is out of the things we take for granted which make it run. It’s a more delicate, subtle, thing, and chooses also to focus upon that kindness and compassion which is as much a part of our nature as the self-will.

It’s a great and compulsive page turner, and the way in which Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel weaves together lives, artefacts, connected and pivotal moments is dizzyingly apt, and without any feeling of contrivance

And to my utter delight, there were no chain saw massacres, no gratuitous excuses for impossible x rated violence, no zombies, no werewolves, no vampires. Nothing that happens stretches plausibility at all. The magic of the book is the magic of ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary extraordinary lives and events

I received this as an digital review copy via NetGalley. There were some EmilyStJohnMandel1SMALLformatting blips, and I assume these are limited to the review, rather than the finally available digital download

And thank you to WanderRaven whose review of this one initially made me scurry for it as fast as I could go to say my pretty pleases to NetGalley

Station Eleven Amazon UK
Station Eleven Amazon USA


Andrea Levy – Six Stories and an essay – It’s publication day!


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Six stories and an essay


It’s publication day for Andrea Levy’s sharp short stories about the experience of being British, black, with a Caribbean ancestry. Within the collection of stories she gives each one a setting relating to when she wrote it, and what inspired it. The stories are preceded by a thoughtful, interesting essay on her own relationship with recognising the twined strands of being British, black, Caribbean ancestry, and putting that into a wider context

Here is my original review, written after receiving it as an ARC from the publishers

Six Stories and an essay Amazon UK
Six Stories and an essay Amazon USA

Sarah Moss – Names for the Sea: Strangers In Iceland


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Elves, SUVs, underfloor heating, a love of learning and the cult of the new.

Names-for-the-Sea-imageThough definitely a person who basks in hotter-the-better sun, I am lured and also terrified by the climates of harsh, cold, isolation.

So Sarah Moss’s obsession with, love of Iceland, biographical account of a year spent living and working there, was always going to be an absorbing read. In many ways my interest is as much in ‘how does a person coming from one culture assimilate into another’ as it is in learning about a different culture; that is because the outsider sees things the in-dweller cannot, because it is so much part of their fabric that they can’t step outside it.

Moss first went to Iceland when she was 19, over a university summer holiday, with a friend. By the time covered by this book, she is in her thirties, married, with two children, and a university lecturer (and of course a writer) This is post-the collapse of Iceland, and she had a accepted a lecturing commitment for a year at Reykjavik University. By the time she got there, her salary had so far dropped in its buying power as to make living there for the year quite hard.

Reykjavik Wiki Commons

Reykjavik Wiki Commons

What she found puzzling is that certainly amongst the middle classes she could not really see much evidence of what ‘collapse’ had done to society, as, in boom, Iceland had moved to be a highly consumerist culture, households with several gas guzzling vehicles, a society of perennial new spend and dumping (not recycling, not sell-or-give-away-as second-hand) of the mildly out-moded but still fully functioning. She discovered this, even, in small children’s clothing. Unlike her middle-class-British-society, where mums were cheerfully passing on clothes to other mums 3 months behind them in child-age, to the Icelanders, there was something distasteful and a little shameful in this:

The Icelandic horror at the idea of the second-hand seems to be partly to do with the impossibility of anonymity here, the fear of ‘strangers’ The risk is one of disclosure, that the person who classified the object as ‘trash’ might see the same object reclassified by someone else…..this is why secondhand clothes are so terrible, because the anonymity of charitable giving might be broken, you might recognise your child’s outgrown clothes on someone else and thus have to acknowledge some kind of hierarchy. One of the most widely held beliefs among Icelanders is that there is no hierarchy here

Lopi sweaterMoss is both a lover of Iceland, and its people, and bemused and at times critical of it. During her year she also discovered that some of what Iceland told about itself TO itself – such as its low crime figures were just not true, and, even discovered in the forays she made with Icelandic friends around the country as her year drew to its close, that they too were starting to see a hidden Iceland that they had not known existed.


Along the way we meet the modern tradition of ‘Icelandic knitting’ (not something dating back to Viking times at all), a belief in elves alive and well, and of course, the ‘old’ diet, divorced of fresh fruit and vegetables, for large parts of the year, later superseded, as Iceland entered its boom years by exotic greengrocery from all over the world, now returning, as the price of food sky-rocketed, to earlier privations

And, of course, there is much that hinges up an inescapably close relationship Sarah-Mosswith climate, geography, landscape and the rules imposed by a far more dramatic relationship with day and night, cold and colder, than we have in most of these isles.

Names For The Sea : Strangers In Iceland Amazon UK
Names For The Sea : Strangers In Iceland Amazon UK

Izy Hossack – Top With Cinnamon


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Enchanted by Izy (beloved by dentists!)

top-with-cinnamonI have been bowled over by Izy almost against my will. YES this book is not going to be one of the cookbooks in daily use, mainly because it is really a sweet and sticky bakes and desserts book, with a few main dishes and savoury (and LOTS of sweet) snacks thrown in for good measure.

BUT Izy is 18, bubbling over with enthusiasm, loves cooking, loves eating, and just expresses such joie de vivre and desire to SHARE the pleasure that it would take a harder-hearted, surlier cynic than I would ever want to be, NOT to roll over, surrender and say, ah, bless, good on you, and……mm let me into the kitchen and attabake NOW

This would particularly be a fabulous book for other young chefs or would be chefs. She is refreshingly ‘hey, this is FUN!, this is COOL! This is EASY!’ and though at times I squinted at the text (tiny, tiny) and thought there might be an overkill of photos and not QUITE enough recipes, I felt a churl for even thinking this.

As a vegetarian some of the (Not that many) main dishes are of course NOT FOR ME, so we will draw a veil over them, and those that want to see can look at the index on a ‘look inside’

This is a very helpful book for the utter novice cook, as Izy shows and tells how to make such staples as bread dough, pastry, not to mention how to prepare and line cake tins and roll-out and prepare pastry in a flan tin, and how to make various staples she uses a lot of such as chocolate and hazelnut butter and chocolate ganache.

But how can a fellow chocolate lover NOT surrender to Izy, a serious chocca young lady if ever there was one – Chocolate Chip Amaretto Torte, Swedish chocolate cake, boozy mocha Coconut Layer Cake (sandwiched with that chocolate ganache yum) and the like.

You can keep your surly bad tempered chefs who dishearten the rest of us with complexity. Izy Hossack is infectiously joyous, as are her recipes It must be a surfeit of endorphins from all that chocolate.

AND should you decide you would like more Izy recipes, there is her blog, surprisingly entitled Top With Cinnamon.

A picture for Coconut Bostock - recipe on her site Top With Cinnamon

A picture for Coconut Bostock – recipe on her site Top With Cinnamon

Very helpfully, Izy who lives in the UK has an American Italian mother, so she covers every single base on the measurement, – the weighted ones, Imperial and Metric, and those frankly WEIRD (to a Brit) Stateside volume ones, for her baking recipes, so meaning her book can be happily used by all!

Izy’s other enthusiasm is photography, so the visuals, as well as the food (and no doubt the choice of that tiny text!) is also testament to her creative skills

Second edition, maybe she’ll turn the font size up! (Okay, that’s the advantage if you get this in eread, but then..losing those lovely photos!)

I happily received this from the Amazon Vine UK programme as a review copy

Top With Cinnamon Amazon UK
Top With Cinnamon Amazon USA

Andrea Levy – Six Stories & an essay


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Left wanting more – seven, eight, nine or ten!

Six stories and an essayI was delighted to get this as an ARC from the publisher. Having appreciated Small Island, I was curious to see how Levy handled the short story genre. Reading a selection of short stories by a writer can at times be a challenging experience, because if the reader is quite a fast reader, each story may be completed too quickly, and to read several all at once is a bit like devouring a box of chocolates in one sitting – you can end up feeling a bit overindulged, and wish you’d taken longer to truly savour each gem! Also, as far as stories, rather than chocolates go, a whole bunch of short stories leaves the reader sometimes in the position of having sussed the authorial tricks, as the trajectory of shape and structure of a short story is easier to see fairly quickly.

All the stories are of high calibre, and each one is introduced by a photograph, and an introduction where she sets each within its time and place of gestation.

The Empire Windrush photo Hulton Getty

The Empire Windrush photo Hulton Getty

However, I found it was the ‘and an essay’ which most sustained my interest, where Levy charts her personal experience of being a black Briton, and her growing awareness of herself as a writer, a black writer, a Briton, and her Caribbean roots. She beautifully brings all this together, closely knitting together the fact that there is an often unexplored mutual making of identity between Britain and The Caribbean, that both made each other what they are:

But there are still countless young Britons today of Afro-Caribbean descent who have as little understanding of their ancestry and have as little evidence of their worth as I did when I was growing up. And there are countless white Britons who are unaware of the histories that bind us together. Britain made the Caribbean that my parents came from. It provided the people – black and white – who made up my ancestry. In return my ancestors, through their forced labour and their enterprise, contributed greatly to the development of modern Britain. My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

My particular favourite stories of the 6 are ‘Deborah’ the exploration of how childhood andrea-levy-001‘evil’ may begin, which was possibly a story which began to brew in the wake of James Bulger’s murder at the hands of two minors, and ‘That Polite Way That English People Have’, a story almost spinning off from A Small Island, which she was then writing, and based on her mother’s arrival in this country, from Jamaica, in 1948. It looks at class, race and how to survive and get on, and is both pointed, deftly painted and funny, making little needle like stabs through the light touch humour

Publication day is the 23rd October
Six Stories and an essay Amazon UK
Six Stories and an essay Amazon USA

Susan Hill – The Woman In Black


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As the nights get longer: ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night

the-woman-in-blackSusan Hill’s transmogrified-into-many-media “The Woman In Black” remains a wonderful, atmospheric ghost story, still holding its own after its 30 plus years in print. Though I’m – amazed/amused/shocked to find that it is now listed as a best seller on Amazon in the CHILDREN’S ebook category. I don’t believe it was initially written, or published, for that market. So I’m not quite sure what this shows – the literary sophistication of children? Sure, post a-film-starring-Daniel-Harry-Potter-Radcliffe, probably new audiences are coming to the book, but it is quite a slowly paced, literary piece of writing (hence its standing the test of time on a re-read for this reader). It’s a properly paced, slow-burn, atmospheric piece of writing, with a wonderful sense of lonely place – set on the North-East coast, much of the horror arises from Hill’s ability to create an eerie, beautiful, mysterious and isolated tidal estuary landscape, complete with the suckings and soughings, the glimmers, glistens and dankness of wind, water and sea-frets.

Arthur Kipps, now a middle aged man on his second marriage, is immured in a family Christmas. His teenage stepsons embark, in high spirits, on the telling of ghost stories

Unwillingly, the years roll back memories of a quarter of a century and more ago, when Kipps, as a young solicitor, was sent to deal with the estate of a recently deceased reclusive woman in her eighties, who had lived in isolation in a house at Eel Marsh, some distance from a little market town called Crythin Gifford. Eel Marsh can only be reached when the tide is out, and is then completely cut off from the outside world, and the outside world from it, once the tide comes in again. There was some unexplained horror to do with Eel Marsh. Locals drop veiled hints, but Kipps, a pragmatic, modern young man, not given to flights of fancy is of course dismissive…………..until.

This is a proper Victorian Gothic style story, even though set in a modern era. Everything is done through its effect on Kipps, the slow drip drip of fear and horror into his psyche. It’s a superb ratcheting up of horror, and there is nothing to cynically laugh at, no crass clankings of chains and slamming doors, opening graves and the like. Hill takes normality and just progressively makes it go wrong, chill and definitely evil.

We had travelled perhaps three miles, and passed no farm or cottage, no kind of dwelling house at all, all was emptiness. Then, the hedgerows petered out, and we seemed to be driving towards the very edge of the world. Ahead, the water gleamed like metal…..I realized this must be the Nine Lives Causeway…..and saw, how, when the tide came in, it would quickly be quite submerged and untraceable……..we went on, almost in silence, save for a hissing, silky sort of sound. Here and there were clumps of reeds, bleached bone-pale, and now and again the faintest of winds caused them to rattle dryly

And that’s BEFORE the sea-frets come!susanhill-007

A short, chilly, chilly, read. Hill is a writer who understands less is more and has no need for crude schlock effects.

The Woman In Black Amazon UK
The Woman In Black Amazon USA

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher


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Deliciously spiteful!

The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherI never thought I would want to connect the two words put together in my title, but this is what this well crafted collection of short stories offers.

Mantel perfectly understands the trajectory of the short story, and each one is excellently crafted. In fact, the collection as a whole is contained by the first story, Sorry To Disturb, hooking to the last, title story.

Sorry to Disturb is set in Saudia Arabia in 1983, the story of a British woman (a reflection of Mantel herself) having to come to terms with life in that society, where she and her husband are now living. It has some similarities to Mantel’s novel with a similar setting, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. In this edgy, claustrophobic story, where all `outsiders’ struggle to exist within new norms, reference is made to the 1983 election which returned Thatcher to power:

“Thursday June 9th………..When we turned out the light, the grocer’s daughter jigged through my dreams to the strains of `Lillibulero’. Friday was a holiday, and we slept undisturbed till the noon prayer call. Ramadan began. Wednesday June 15th: Read The Twyborn Affair and vomited sporadically’.”

The end plate story posits the assassination, and the timing of this story, I noted, coincides with the narrator of the first story and her husband being back in the UK on leave.

Almost every story is dark, nastily funny, and with a lethal sting in its tail. And perhaps unusually, as I could not resist reading this straight through, I didn’t second guess the wraps, which managed to be both surprising and satisfying.

What does unite almost all of them however is a sense of spite and delight in the spite (and is responsible for the fact that though I liked the collection, very very much, I didn’t quite love it)

The ones which worked most effectively for me, however, had more of a sense of unease, danger and unpredictability about them, relative to the central characters. This was particularly the case in stories where the central characters were not properly in control, and were even `outsiders’ in different ways. – hence the despair and difficulty of that first story, Sorry to Disturb. This story, one of my favourites, links also to the fourth story, Winter Break, where a childless couple travel out of season to a rocky, mountainous un-named (probably North African or possibly Spanish) location. The link between the two stories is childlessness, and biological clocks. Winter Break , like Sorry To Disturb, is less filled with spite as a driver, and does have a shape and a journey which is compellingly managed,

I also very much liked `Comma’ where adults and children are outsiders to each other, and explores in that territory where the unrestrained, uncivil, could be feral nature of childhood, and the cultural restraints children are learning, meet. The central child in this story, again, a kind of `proto Mantel’

`guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white-check that had fitted me last year;’

has a cross-class friendship with another child of more weird and vibrant vitality.

`Harley Street’ I found wonderfully funny, and it rather cocks a snook at a certain popular genre which is often a dreary repository for sloppy writing. Mantel manages her foray into the area with great style, despite making some very bad and obvious jokes. Or, indeed, because of making those bad and obvious jokes

Every story seems to start, and end, with a satisfying hook and a bangMantel-sandison

Wholesome, it isn’t!

And I’m grateful to FictionFan for alerting me to this on her ‘currently reading’ queue, which sent me racing post haste to buy it. I’m afraid that though my newest download it leapfrogged everything else, courtesy of a weekend journey and the dreaded engineering works and Network Rail!

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher Amazon UK
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher Amazon USA

Emmanuel Carrère – Limonov


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A most disturbing read

Limonov jacketTo be honest, I spent much of my time reading this biography with interpolations and explanations by the author, wondering what on earth I was doing, as Eduard Limonov, writer, manipulator and sometime leader of the banned National Bolshevik party, most often comes across as a brutal, narcissistic thug, a proto-fascist, and a man devoid of pity, fellow-feeling or compassion. At times, reading accounts of Limonov’s chosen early life, as a petty hoodlum in Ukraine, and later as a bum and shocking, Genet-ish, Henry Miller-ish writer of degradation in New York and Paris, with his overweening desire to be ‘someone’ whatever the cost, either to himself or anyone else, felt a little like rooting around salaciously in degradation, overwhelmed by half horrified, half fascinated prurience.

Limonov, born Savenko, adopted the name, as a play upon the sourness and clarity of the lemon, but it is also a Russian word for ‘grenade’, so indicated his propensity for violence, and to shatter complacency and the status quo.


French writer and film-maker Emmanuel Carrère, himself of part Russian descent, (his maternal grandfather was a White Russian émigré) is/was clearly both fascinated and repelled by Limonov. His rationale for writing this hybrid of biography AND autobiography is his belief that here is a man, in Limonov, through whom one can understand not just one man, but the whole history of Russia from the Second World War to the present day, and that the complexities, the darkness, degradation and brutality and yes, the light, and the mysticism within Limonov are in some way indicative of this complex country. And indeed, he suggests further that the confusion and complexity of Limonov’s nature and history also shows something about ‘’all our history since the end of World War II’’

What kept me reading was an appeal, by Carrère, to the reader, part way through the book, laying out a tenet from a Buddhist sutra :

A man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality.

and Carrère goes on to say

this idea….is the pinnacle of wisdom, and that one life isn’t enough to adopt it, digest it, and absorb it so that it ceases to be an idea and instead conditions at every moment our way of looking and acting. For me, writing this book is a strange way of attempting to do just that

This is an often horrible, depressing, distressing read, and yet, at times there is a kind Emmanuel_Carrère_2of dignity and honour in Limonov which Carrère makes the reader see…particularly in the account of his time in prison, as an avowed critic of Putin, where he seemed to win the respect of fellow prisoners and guards.

This is not in any way an easy or a comfortable read; yet I can’t do other than recommend it.

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK

Limonov Amazon UK
Limonov Amazon USA

Michael Russell – The City Of Shadows


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Classy, complex political thriller set in 1934 : Dublin, Danzig, and a world inching towards war

City Of ShadowsWhoever alerted me to this one – thank you. Michael Russell has written an intelligent thriller set in 1934 Ireland, and in the Free City of Danzig, which is both a page turning read, and a thoughtful, educative one. I’m also delighted, having finished it, to see there is a sequel, with his unusual detective going to New York, in City Of Silence (and I know a third is to be published, so I’m very very pleased to have come across Russell.

Okay, so what makes his Dublin based detective, Stefan Gillespie, so ‘unusual’?

Well, in the current climate of most police procedurals it seems almost unheard of to find someone who is not : an alcoholic, or recovering alcoholic; an ‘edgy maverick’; someone with few social skills; someone with a damaged and abused past; someone who has problems relating to women; someone mildly (or more so) with extreme mental, emotional or behavioural problems. Instead, and isn’t THIS shocking! – we have a pretty decent individual, who is normally humanly complex, interested in justice, does his job as well as he can, gets along with his parents, is a tender father, has good relationships with his colleagues, a bit of a short fuse when riled by bullies, incompetents and ne-er do well thugs, and even, good heavens, can form adult relationships with feisty intelligent women!
Oh, and ‘women’ rather than ‘woman’ doesn’t mean he is a philanderer. Though he does have a dead wife whom he loved dearly (natural accident)

Stefan Gillespie, a detective in the Garda, is trying to arrest a known abortionist. He discovers that Hannah Rosen, a young woman visiting the abortionist at the time he makes his raid is not there for the obvious reason, but because she is trying to find a friend who has gone missing, last known port of call, the abortionist, many months earlier.

The curious involvement of Special Branch, who unaccountably seem to be trying to protect the abortionist, the presence of various Nazi sympathisers, make things a bit more confusing. And when Gillespie discovers that Hannah Rosen is Irish Jewish but now resident in Palestine, things get even more complex, as the high class abortionist is an Austrian Nazi sympathiser.

What makes Russell’s book so special though, is his ability to handle complex political, social, historical and religious themes, making the reader as well as his characters, think and judge what is going on.

Firstly there are the complex and tangled affairs of Irish history and the various alliances made and broken after the creation of The Irish Free State. And then the equally complicated history of the short lived Free City of Danzig. Then the equally complex and tangled relationships or otherwise between Catholicism and Protestantism, the unacceptability of ‘mixed marriages’ in Ireland, and the existence of a bedrock of anti-Semitism, not just coming from Germany, but far more widespread. Odd bedfellows are explored – for example, for reactionary strains within Catholicism, ‘my enemy’s enemy’ could become my friend – communism, aligned with atheism, was the anathema, so fascism, tacitly supported or not opposed, found some ready soil within certain factions of the Catholic hierarchy.

However, Russell is far too interested, learned and subtle a thinker to be one sided, this is no Dawkinsesque demonise the church polemic . And he is far too much a seasoned writer of dramatic tension (television scriptwriter) to get caught by the trap of putting heavy issues FIRST and ending up writing something all about ideas, but with no drama, no narrative, no complex and credible characters to inhabit all this charged stuff

Complex, and absolutely credible plot lines move Gillespie’s search for missing witnesses, missing persons to Danzig, on the eve of elections designed to deliver that Free City back to Germany. Fact and fiction are beautifully entwined with a couple of real ‘heroes’ little known, playing pivotal roles in this story.

I could not begin to second guess what was going on, as the tangled web seemed to Michael Russellbe getting ever more complicated, and there were some genuine surprises. Okay, there were possibly one or two too many fortuitous in the nick of time escapes from some certain sticky ends, but this is a real delight of a pacey, well crafted political thriller, with strong and credible characters.


The City Of Shadows Amazon UK
The City Of Shadows Amazon USA


Michel Faber – The Book Of Strange New Things. It’s publication day!


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The Book Of Strange new Things


Here is a strange, challenging and enjoyable new thing of a book by Michel Faber, very different from his much loved The Crimson Petal and The White.

Here is my original review, written back in July after receiving it as an ARC from NetGalley in digital format

The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon UK
The Book Of Strange New Things Amazon USA


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