Monthly Archives: January 2015

Ten Little New Yorkers by Kinky Friedman

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I have a Kinky Friedman story.

Many years ago, while living on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia, a local music promoter named Texas Dave used to bring Texan acts to Moruya, a small farming town. I saw several Blues and Country artists and quite a few who didn’t really fit into any genre in Moruya, thanks to Texas Dave’s promotions. Kinky Friedman was one of the acts who played at the Pearly Shells Hotel, located on the banks of the Moruya River. I believe the Pearly Shells is a nice place to go these days, but at the time, it was a dive, the kind of place you went to if you couldn’t get in anywhere else (because you were underage, or so smashed you had been kicked out of someplace else) but as always for Texas Dave’s shows, loads of people turned out to see Kinky Friedman.

I don’t remember much about his music, but Kinky Friedman told the audience in Moruya some really good stories. He wore a moustache, a huge hat and had a big cigar and was travelling with a former Miss Texas. My strongest memory of the night was Miss Texas standing alone in the middle of the dance floor giving a demonstration of line dancing, which hadn’t been seen in Moruya before. Miss Texas was wearing a big hat of her own, a short skirt and cowboy boots, but she couldn’t get anyone in the Pearly Shells to join her on the dance floor. I remember commenting to someone that I didn’t think line dancing was going to take off in Australia. (I was wrong).

Ten Little New Yorkers is the first Kinky Friedman book I’ve read. I think I tried reading one years ago (probably around the time of the Pearly Shells show) but found his humour not to be to my taste at the time. My outlook has obviously broadened as I’ve gotten older, as I roared laughing quite a few times while reading Ten Little New Yorkers and thoroughly enjoyed the story. The author may not be politically correct, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t funny, and to be fair, he doesn’t discriminate when he takes a humorous swipe. Everyone is fair game.

The author actually stars in Ten Little New Yorkers as a fictionalised version of himself. The Kinkster lives in New York and is a detective, with a missing cat, a cast of unusual friends, neighbours and associates. The story starts with a friend of Kinky’s explaining that the words in this novel are directly from a diary left by Kinky.

The plot is quite slim, but the humour and side stories fill the story out considerably. The story is that murders are occurring in the neighbourhood and Kinky seems to have been framed for them. The victims are all men who have physically or emotionally harmed women.

As a whodunit, I found it quite easy to find the link between the murders and the murderer, as I’m sure most other readers did also. The simplicity of the ‘whodunnit’ really doesn’t matter, as the story is enjoyable. As a character, Kinky is clever and funny and enormously likeable. The title seems to be a tribute to an Agatha Christie novel with a similar title where the victims are picked off one by one (although if I remember rightly, I couldn’t pick the murderer in Christie’s book).

So, if there is a moral to my story, I think it is to give things another go, even if you don’t get them the first time around. I will read more Kinky Friedman stories.  I have also been known to take part in line dances.

 

 

 

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The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

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Happy Australia Day. In honour of the day, today’s blog features an Australian writer.

I read the short stories from The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe over a few weeks, just picking the book up and reading a few pages here and there, which is much easier to do with short stories than a novel.

All of the stories in the collection feature Australian characters from three generations of a family and are set on Australian beaches. The character’s romances and lives seem almost to change with the tides. The author makes the point over and over again that when Australians escape, or dream of escaping from their own lives, they go to the coast, and this is true in my own case.

The story I most enjoyed was ‘The View From the Sandhills,’ which is told by a man who spends his days watching women on the beach using his binoculars from the sand dunes. He has spent over 23 years in jail for violent and sexual crimes and no doubt he’ll end up there again, but the reason I liked this story is because the narrator was so open. He told his story seemingly without hiding a single thought or emotion, regardless of how socially unacceptable or nasty he appears to the reader.

The title story, ‘The Bodysurfers,’ is told by David, a man who recently left his wife for his lover, Lydia. On the weekend this story is told, David, Lydia and David’s three children are spending a weekend at a beach shack which David recently bought on an impulse. Soon after arriving, David realises that the nearby beach never has any surf, which disappoints all of them. Lydia, who is younger than David and a sexual exhibitionist, swims and sunbakes topless. Poor David’s oldest son doesn’t know where to look. Possums running all over the shack’s roof drive them all crazy at night. The reader gets the feeling that David’s ownership of the shack and his relationship with Lydia will be fleeting.

A later story, ‘The Stingray,’ has David being stung by what may or may not be a stingray, and phoning a woman named Victoria for assistance, Lydia obviously long gone.  In an earlier story, ‘Looking for Malibu,’  David, his first wife and their children are living as expats in the United States.

‘Sweetlip’ tells the story of the death of Rex Lang, on a junket weekend on Sweetlip Island with a 24 man party from the Company. The report tells of a great many of the men becoming ill, some most likely from drinking too much and others from suspected food poisoning. The autopsy is vague and there are a number of unanswered questions following Rex’s death.

Characters use expressions like, “So put that in your pipe and smoke it,” and are described as “scallywags,” which are expressions that for an Australian reader, give these stories a distinctive time and place.

It took me a while to realise that the characters in The Bodysurfers were part of the same family. The characters weren’t all that sympathetic either, quite a few were ungrateful, spoiled brats or middle aged men having indulgent mid life crises. Some characters who are predatory and dangerous. I’ll probably re-read this book though, because the words are beautifully chosen and I feel as if I must have missed something on my first read, as some of the stories didn’t seem to have a point that was obvious to me.

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Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico

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I’ve read Flowers for Mrs Harris (or Mrs Harris Goes to Paris) by Paul Gallico several times, and I’ve also seen the movie, which starred Angela Lansbury.

The story is corny and the romance between two of the characters (not Mrs Harris, thank goodness) is almost cringe-worthy at times but I still really, really like this story.

The story is set in London during the 1950’s. Mrs Harris (or ‘Arris, as she would say) is a hard working char lady, whose clients range from eligible bachelors and society women to actresses. While cleaning for Lady Dant, Mrs Harris opened a wardrobe and saw two Dior dresses. Lady Dant shows them off to Mrs Harris and told her the dresses cost 450 pounds. Mrs Harris, who is somewhere between middle and old age, is completely enamoured of these beautiful dresses and decides then and there, that somehow, she will buy a Dior dress of her own. It does not matter to her at all that she is unlikely to wear the dress, or that the cost is far more than she can afford. (This is the part where the book wins me over. I would probably sell a child to own a vintage Dior dress, even if it was a dress I could never wear).

Soon after determining to buy a Dior dress for herself, Mrs Harris wins just over 100 pounds in the football pools. The win sets Mrs Harris on her path to save the money for her dress. She has several ups and downs while she is saving, including attempting to win the remainder of the money she wins on the dogs.

Several years later, Mrs Harris has scrimped and saved the required 450 pounds, plus enough for her fare to Paris. Having bought a new hat for the occasion, she obtains her passport and flys off to Paris. This may not sound very exciting now, but believe me, at the time this book is set, a trip like this was a very unlikely, enormous and costly adventure for anyone to take, except for the Lady Dants of the world.

Not surprisingly, The House of Dior does not at first welcome Mrs Harris, whose appearance and manners clearly identify her as a cleaning lady. Mme Coulbert, Dior’s manageress, coldly advises her that there are no places available for any viewings of the collection for weeks. When Mrs Harris pleads with Mme, Mme recognises that Mrs Harris has set her heart on a Dior dress, and finds a spot on the stairs for her to watch the show. At the last moment, Mme seats Mrs Harris in the front row with the richest and most elegant women in the world.

Mrs Harris loses her heart to a dress named Temptation, a floor length black velvet gown with a cream, pink and white top. The dress is modelled by Dior’s top model, the beautiful Natasha.

Mme is disappointed that Mrs Harris has chosen Temptation, which was designed for young, beautiful women, but Mrs Harris tries on the dress regardless, which fits her. Mrs Harris had expected to return to London that afternoon with her dress, and was horribly disappointed to learn that the dress would have to be made for her over several weeks.

Dior’s accountant, M Fauvel, and Natasha, come to Mrs Harris’s rescue, offering her accommodation with M Fauvel. He is in love with Natasha, who had no idea he existed, although she is tired of social engagements with counts, dukes and politicians. Natasha is desperate to return to fall in love, have babies and return to her middle class background (huh???)

Over the next week, Natasha and M Fauvel spend time together with Mrs Harris, who engineers their engagement, as well as helping Mme Coulbert’s husband in his career.

Once the dress is made, Mrs Harris returns to London, where she impulsively loans the dress to one of her clients, a young actress, who ruins the dress.

The ending of the story is disappointing, because of the harm done to Mrs Harris’s heart and property, but doesn’t prevent this book from being a feel-good novel. I believe there are other books by Paul Gallico with Mrs Harris going to New York and Moscow, but I haven’t read them.

Flowers for Mrs Harris is full of morals and lessons and is very often twee, but it is still a charming read.

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The Quarry by Iain Banks

quarryI nearly stopped reading The Quarry by Iain Banks after a few chapters because I couldn’t get into the story. I’m not sure why I persevered, but after only a couple more chapters my opinion had reversed, feeling grateful I hadn’t put this book aside.

The Quarry tells the story of a single weekend, from the point of view of Kit, an eighteen year old English boy. Kit is autistic, a socially inept genius, whose father, Guy, is dying of cancer.

On the weekend of the story, a group of Guy’s old friends come to stay. The weekend is a chance for Guy and his friends to remember the glory days of their friendship, when they shared a house while in university. During this time they made films together, but Hol is the only one still working in the film industry, as a critic. Paul became a lawyer, Rob and Ali are in business, Pris is a needy, single mother and Haze is a drop out and drug addict. Guy’s friends also have an ulterior motive for visiting, which is to find a particular movie they made together, which has the potential to embarrass or even harm their careers and family lives if it were to become public.

As I said earlier, the characters and story grew on me the more I read. Kit is a likeable character and I could come around to his way of thinking, which is slightly different to the norm. For example, I’ve never thought of my age metrically before, but Kit’s way is such a satisfying way to measure age and time, (for the record, I’m 4.5 decades old). All of the characters drink too much, use drugs and do stupid things. Their behaviour is selfish, mean and cruel. They are also generous, loving, funny and interesting.

Guy is the most interesting character. He is angry about dying, and rants and raves and says terrible, unkind things to Kit, who he is dependent on. Guy’s behaviour is understandable, but I hated him for his behaviour towards Kit. More than anything, I wanted Guy to tell Kit the truth about who his mother was, something Kit should know. Instead of telling Kit the truth, Guy suggests that Hol or Ali or Pris might be Kit’s mother.

The story is full of clever and funny observations and situations. Hol made a comment about girls being swept off their feet and ending up on the backs, which left me snickering. This may seem obvious, but the idea was new to me, and funny because it is true. Hol also tells Kit that just because you can trust a person with your life, that doesn’t mean you can trust them with your money, rang true also.

The Quarry had a happy-sad ending, which was probably inevitable, although the story is quite satisfying in that all of the loose ends are tidied up. I haven’t read any other books by Iain Banks before, but will actively look for others.

 

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The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

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The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is one of the most unusually laid out books I’ve ever read.

The story itself is also very unusual. The story is told by 12 year old TS, who lives with his parents and sister on their ranch, high up in the mountains in Montana. TS’s father is a laconic rancher who TS has little in common with and his mother, who TS calls Dr Clair, is a scientist who has spent the last 20 years searching for a beetle which is either extinct or mythical. TS’s brother, Layton, died the previous year when he accidently shot himself while assisting TS with an experiment.

The book itself is an unusual size for a novel, maybe five centimetres wider than normal hardback books. The extra space is used for pictures of TS’s work and side tracks to the telling of the story. The illustration below is TS’s picture of the skeleton of the sparrow he was named for.

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TS, although only 12, is a mapmaker. He charts absolutely everything that moves and plenty of things that don’t. The pictures down the sides of the text relate to the part of the story TS is telling, and usually have an explanation also. The illustration below serves to show the difference in the way TS and his brother Layton’s brains work, in that Layton coloured in his First Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims colouring book and TS used his to make measurements.

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TS’s mentor, Dr Yorn, has been forwarding TS’s work to the Smithsonian Institute for years. The story begins with a phone call telling TS he has won a major award from the Smithsonian for the advancement of science, which includes a year-long placement. The caller doesn’t realise TS is a child when he invites him to the award ceremony the following Thursday.

Instead of telling his parents or even Dr Yorn what is going on, TS hops on a freight train and travels across the country to attend the ceremony. After a great many adventures, mapping, stories and sidelines, TS arrives, not quite intact. Once in Washington DC, TS has to navigate an adult world where a great many demands are made of him.

At first I was annoyed by the pictures and notes in the margins, but once I slowed down and relaxed into the book, I started looking forward to the markers in the text telling me I was up to the next illustration and explanations. They were very interesting sidelines which sometimes filled in backstory or helped the story to move forward. Sometimes though, the sidelines didn’t go anywhere, except to give the reader an idea of how completely random the thoughts in other people’s heads must be.

TS’s character was lovely too. He was terribly serious, sometimes child-like and sometimes not, but he was always charming. His family had been fractured by Layton’s death, which was never spoken of, and there were other issues and mysteries that TS learned more about and understood more of as he travelled further from home.

I did enjoy The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet once I got over feeling that the footnotes were interrupting the story.

Note: several weeks after reading this novel, I watched The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet which was a very enjoyable movie. The story had been abbreviated and simplified and was suitable for children to watch also.

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Teen Idol by Meg Cabot

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As a diligent aunt, I like to keep up with what my nieces are reading, so took the opportunity to read Teen Idol by Meg Cabot which Miss S has been ploughing through. (Plus, I remember enjoying The Princess Diaries books and movies when my daughter, now grown up, was reading that series at least ten years ago).

Teen Idol was a very enjoyable read, even for a woman in her mid forties. The book is ten years old, but isn’t at all dated. The book is aimed squarely at teenage girls and has a lot of appeal for that age group.

The heroine, Jen Greenley, is a no-nonsense type, who has three big secrets. The first is, she secretly writes the problem page for her school magazine. As ‘Ask Annie,’ she provides advice to her fellow students regarding their romances, parents and relationships with their peers. Jen’s role as a confidante and giver of advice extends to her friends and classmates, who rely on her to smooth over their issues.

Jen’s second secret is that Luke Striker, an incredibly popular heart throb from Hollywood is attending her school to research his next movie role. Luke is in disguise, but Jen is tasked with helping him to stay undercover. Luke didn’t attend school as he was tutored on set as a child, and finds high school to be a place he doesn’t like. He can’t believe there is no coffee, but struggles even more with the bullying that goes on towards susceptible students and teachers.

Not surprisingly, Luke is outed when he takes off his shirt at a car wash, revealing a distinctive tattoo. He is mobbed by groupies and escapes with Jen. Before Luke returns to Hollywood, he pressures Jen to effect social change, by standing up to the bullies and providing more of a hands on approach to helping people rather than just giving them advice.

Jen’s third secret is that she has been in love with Scott Benson since primary school. Scott is the editor of the school magazine and goes out with one of Jen’s friends.

Teen Idol has good values for teens to follow and good advice for girls which are disguised in the story. The book was light and entertaining and I can highly recommend Teen Idol and other books by Meg Cabot to my other high school aged nieces.

 

 

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Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

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Yay!! Another book by Stephen King!! Mr Mercedes by Stephen King is a ripper of a book, an absolute ripper. In my humble opinion, all Stephen King books are good. Some are great. Some are excellent. As I already said, this one is an absolute ripper. Hurry up and read it so you too can have a headache all of the next day from staying up too late reading because you can’t wait to find out what happens.

Mr Mercedes is, unusually for Stephen King, a straight story. No magic, no fantasy, no unworldly creatures. The story is set in the present time in an ordinary American city and the characters are all normal (including the psychopaths, if psychopaths can be considered normal). This book could be described as a detective novel.

There are several heroes in this story, but the main good guy character is a retired police detective, Bill Hodges. When the story begins Bill is divorced, lonely, bored with retirement and, is almost casually considering suicide. Apparently a large number of men in Bill’s position do commit suicide.

When he retired, Bill handed over a few unresolved cases to his former partner. One case was the search for a mass murderer, a killer who ploughed through a crowd of job seekers in a stolen Mercedes, who became known as Mr Mercedes. Bill retains a high level of interest in these unresolved cases.

The bad guy, or Mr Mercedes, contacts Bill via email, using carefully crafted words to try to lure Bill into conversation, with the intention of goading him into suiciding. In Mr Mercedes’ email to Bill, he says he has no intention of carrying out another mass murder, but as it turns out he does.

Bill should have turned his email from Mr Mercedes over to the police in the very beginning of the story, but had he done that, there wouldn’t have been a story. Or if he had, the story would have been different, in that Bill couldn’t have been the good guy. Stephen King would have needed another character, still in the job, to have tried to stop Mr Mercedes from striking again.

Bill’s fellow heroes are a very clever boy who mows his lawns, a woman named Janey who Bill almost falls in love with and Janey’s cousin Holly, who has serious mental health issues. As a team, they have to try and work out who Mr Mercedes is and what he is planning to do. I won’t say if the good guys succeed in stopping Mr Mercedes or if Mr Mercedes lives to fight another day.

My only issue was the romance between Janey and Bill. Had she been another ten years older I would have believed it, but from a 44 year old woman’s point of view, overweight, 62 year old men are not that attractive. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Bill as a character, but I did not see him physically as a romantic lead.

The scariest part of this book is how ordinary Mr Mercedes presents himself as. He is a working, functioning human being who, as another character says, walks among us. Bad guys don’t have to be aliens or demons to be truly evil.

This book contains references to other Stephen King books, which I love. Recognising the references gives me a feeling of belonging, of knowing that I am a valued Constant Reader.

For those who have read this book, I Googled ‘Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella’, and of course, it exists. Such is the power of Stephen King. I shouldn’t have logged on as Bill though, the fright I got served me right. Read the book and then do this yourself. I got chills all down my back.

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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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I’ve been looking forward to reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Marakami all year. I wasn’t disappointed when I actually got to it.

The main character, Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36 year old man living in Tokyo, whose passion is building railway stations. He is a loner, having been terribly hurt as a young man when his four friends, for reasons which he never understood, kicked him out of their group.

The group of friends had met as idealistic teenagers, three boys and two girls, who got to know each other while performing community service. Tsukuri’s description of their friendship is that they were a five sided shape, an equilateral pentagon, each with a contribution to make to the whole.

Tsukuru’s friend’s names all contained colours; red, blue, white and black. Tsukuri felt different from his friends because his name did not contain a colour, which he believed also expressed that his personality was also colourless. As a reader, I did not believe this to be the case at all. Tsukuru’s name has associations with building, and that was the career path he eventually followed.

At first the mystery of the book is why this happened to Tsukuri. The reader gets to know Tsukuri and he is a good person. He was so hurt and bewildered by his friend’s dropping him that he contemplated suicide. At the age of 36, he recognised that he had never formed a really close relationship with anyone since, in an attempt to protect himself from being hurt again. However, Tsukuri meets and becomes close to Sara, who pushes him to get in contact again with his old friends, for closure, so that he can move forward.

The issues are eventually resolved, at least enough so that Tsukuri and the reader feel that they have closure. There are still mysteries and relationships left up in the air, but nothing that annoyed me. This book also reminds readers that there are as many viewpoints as there are people.

The book has been translated into English from Japanese. The words are very precise, in the way translations are and there is a lot of prose about grabbing drinks of orange juice and other trivial events mixed in with the story. The words and images are beautiful and the lessons are gentle. I would love to know if anyone has read this book in Japanese as well as in English and if the story changed at all because of differences in the languages. I have to admit, I was slightly afraid that this book would be a difficult read, but it wasn’t at all.

There is also music running through the book, which prompted me to Google some of the pieces used to tell the story. I wasn’t the only one either, Liszt’s Le Mal du Pays had a great many comments in English, saying that the listener had come to the piece because of the book. I imagine quite a few of the Japanese comments also say that Murakami sent them too.

This is a lovely book, quite different to my usual reading, but very satisfying. I will not be afraid to read another book by Haruki Murakami.

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The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

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The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera is a story which held my attention from the very first page.

Miss Prudencia Prim, the heroine of this novel, begins by answering an ad for a librarian in a remote village, San Ireneo de Arnois. She takes the position in the household of the Man in the Wing Chair, (who is never named), to catalogue his books. The household is filled with children, his nieces and nephews and other children from the village, where he educates them, according to his principles, to be able to think.

The village turns out to be a kind of utopia where the occupants have chosen to live a simple life, working no more than six hours each day to allow them time to think and read and live. The community was founded by the Man in the Wing Chair. Miss Prim’s character, and the story, develops through the conversations she and other characters have about books, literature, education, philosophies and life.

Miss Prim becomes a member of a feminist group, who set out to find her a husband. At first Miss Prim is deeply offended, and can not understand why the women believe she needs a husband, but later she comes to understand their philosophy and they make a list of possible husbands. The women are full of good sense and their works are the backbone of the community.

Miss Prim and the Man in the Wing Chair clash very often over their respective opinions of the merits of books, for example, Miss Prim defends Little Women, while the Man in the Wing Chair says the book is sentimental rubbish. I’m on Miss Prim’s side here, Little Women may be sentimental, but that doesn’t make it a bad book in my opinion or Miss Prim’s. They also clash on whether Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy is the perfect man.

The Man in the Wing Chair runs rings around Miss Prim in arguments. Miss Prim is very correct and has strong opinions, however during their arguments she becomes heated and angry and lashes out verbally, while the Man in the Wing Chair is always calm, clever and amused. He is unfailingly courteous and good tempered, two qualities which make him a contender for the perfect man in real life.

Not surprisingly, Miss Prim falls in love with the Man in the Wing Chair and realising that their beliefs are too different for him to commit to her, she leaves the village to go to Italy, as advised by his mother, who says that a woman’s education is not complete until she has travelled to Italy. There, Miss Prim finds faith and the book ends. There is hope that Miss Prim will return to the village and a romance with the Man in the Wing Chair.

The book had a feel of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, possibly because of the way Miss Prim’s education is guided by her conversations with the people who live in San Ireneo de Arnois and by the Man in the Wing Chair. I enjoyed the book very much, but wanted more from it. It wasn’t quite a romance or about religion or philosophy or literature, more of a mish mash of a lot of interesting things. Still, I would recommend The Awakening of Miss Prim as a very enjoyable read.

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