Tag Archives: Australian author

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

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Merciless Gods is a collection of short stories by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, who is best known for writing The Slap. I read and enjoyed both The Slap and Barracuda, which although occasionally brutal, are well written contemporary stories which are set in my home town of Melbourne.

I finished reading Merciless Gods some time ago, and have been dithering about whether to post a review or not. The writing in Merciless Gods is up to the author’s usual high standards, but this book did not leave me feeling good about myself. I felt squeamish and anxious reading most of these stories, many of which depict physically and emotionally violent exchanges between characters, as well as graphic (and again, sometimes violent) sex between gay men. The characters in this collection are absolutely brutal to each other.

The first story in the collection is the title story and tells of a group of friends telling each other true stories. One of the characters tells a story of revenge which left me and the other characters feeling emotionally shattered. Merciless Gods is an amazing story, but had I realised each story in the collection was more confronting than the last, I probably would have stopped reading after the second story.

Reading so many stories about unhappy, sometimes unpleasant people behaving viciously towards each other flattened me. I wish this author would show people at their best more often, rather than always at their worst.

I’ll continue reading books by Christos Tsiolkas for the quality of the writing and for my enjoyment of the familiar locations and times, but this confronting collection of stories is not for everyone. I’m prudish at the best of times and if you are too, then give this collection a miss.

 

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Of a Boy by Sonia Hartnett

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Of a Boy (published as What the Birds See outside of Australia) is one of prolific Australian author Sonya Hartnett’s earlier stories. Sonya Hartnett is best known for her books for young adults, although she also writes for children and adults. I’m a latecomer to her work having only read Golden Boys previously, but am a fan and intend to make my way through her work.

Of a Boy brought back every terrible memory from childhood, from being unhappy because of bullying, worrying about not fitting in, to thinking I was unloved and feeling frightened of being abandoned.

Sonya Hartnett’s writing is clear and simple and very, very good. Of a Boy won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Age Book of the Year in 2003.

The story is set in an Australian suburb in the 1970’s, where three small children set off to their local milkbar to buy ice-creams one day and were never seen again. The children’s disappearance shocked and frightened their community, including a nine-year old boy, Adrian, who was dumped on his grandmother after his mother was deemed unfit to look after him. Adrian is the loneliest, saddest little boy around. He is in trouble all the time with his grandmother, who seems to be unable to show Adrian that she loves him. My heart went out to this poor little character.

In Adrian’s grandmother’s defense, she was grieving her husband when Adrian came to live with her. She was also looking forward to a retirement free of obligations, after looking after her sick husband for many years, so resented Adrian for tying her down again even though she knew he is not to blame for their family’s circumstances.

Adrian suffers horribly at school. He lacks confidence and struggles to find friends. Children in this story are just as cruel as children are in real life, and being different to the other children is a licence to be picked on.

Eventually Adrian makes friends with the girl who lives across the road. She has her own cross to bear in the form of a mother who is dying. The story ends with Adrian and Nicole searching for the three missing children, when things comes to a shocking and tragic end. I had to read the last pages twice, because on my first read I couldn’t take in what happened to Adrian at the conclusion of the story.

In Of a Boy Sonya Hartnett tells exactly how it is to be a lonely, frightened and sad child. This story may not be for everyone, but it is exceptionally well told.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson

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I’m going out of my way at the moment to read more novels by Australia authors, so picked up Life in Seven Mistakes by Susan Johnson. Ordinarily I would have avoided a book with a black cover and a pink rose petal as the combination screams romance, potentially with lurid details that would make me cringe with embarrassment, but happily for me I could not have been more wrong about Life in Seven Mistakes, as there were no icky sex scenes at all.

Life in Seven Mistakes tells the story of the Barton family, who are more dysfunctional than most families.

Patriach Bob Barton is retired and lives with his wife Nance in a penthouse at Surfer’s Paradise, on Queensland’s Gold Coast. For all of you non-Australian readers, the Gold Coast is where Australians go to party, our version of Las Vegas or Ibiza. Loads of cash and flash, not much substance, but the beach certainly photographs well.

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Anyhoo, (I’m getting my Aussie on here) Bob is a self-made man. He started out as a labourer on the Snowy scheme, which was the biggest engineering works ever done in Australia. He quickly worked his way up in the world to run a global company, and earned massive amounts of money. Bob fell in love with Nance at first sight back in the day, and she with him. An awestruck Bob described Nance to a mate as being more beautiful than Ava Gardner, since Ava’s “face is sort of cruel.” *

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Together, Bob and Nance had three children, Elizabeth, Robbo and Nicky, who are all in their forties when they join their parents a few days before Christmas at the Gold Coast, along with an assortment of husbands, wives and children. Everyone except Nicky, that is, because he is in jail.

In the present story, Bob is aggro to the point of being unreasonable, blustering and swearing constantly. It is clear from the beginning of the story that he calls the shots and pays the bills in the Barton family. Nance is a bit of a dragon too, who backs Bob right or wrong.

The current story is told from Elizabeth’s point of view. She is nearly 50, up to her third husband, and has three children with different fathers. She is an artist who is not successful enough to pay her own bills, and behaves like a petulant teenager in her parent’s company. Elizabeth has spent most of her adult life avoiding spending time with her parents.

Robbo is very like his father, successful and blustery, but unlike Bob, Robbo married a woman who wears the pants in their relationship. One of Robbo’s children has an eating disorder.

Nicky’s escape came from drugs, and eventually from being sent to prison, where he found God. I’m fairly sure that when he gets out he will discover drugs again.

Things came to a head in the story on Christmas Eve when Bob’s health suddenly deteriorated. I think underneath it all the Barton family actually loved each other, but it was hard to tell from their behaviour.

Reading about the Barton family made me feel uncomfortable. The story is quite well written and the location and time is familiar and true to life, but I can’t imagine living in such an unhappy family and as a result struggled to empathise with the characters. The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, from the part that says a man has ‘seven ages,’ from being a baby through to old age. I think the title must have referred to Bob particularly, although all of the characters were struggling emotionally

I’m not sure where it all went wrong for Bob and Nance. They certainly loved and understood each other and in the beginning their little family seemed perfect. By the time their children were teenagers though, Bob and Nance’s parenting mistakes were clear. They interfered in their children’s lives, didn’t allow them to express their own opinions, and constantly put them down when they expressed a view different to their own. Unfortunately for the happiness of the family, this behaviour was continuing in the present day part of the story, as their almost middle-aged children were still attempting to rebel against Bob and Nance’s rules. By the end of the story Elizabeth recognised that even though she doesn’t want to, she needed to start showing her parents that she loves them.

Susan Johnson has written quite a few novels, including one based on the life of Australian writer Charmian Clift. I will look out for this, although if it is true to Charmian Clift’s life, it won’t have a happy ending either.

*This was the only photo I could find where Ava Gardner’s facial expression looked “sort of cruel.” She just looked beautiful in every other photo…

 

 

 

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The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott

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The Holiday Murders by Australian author Robert Gott is set in Melbourne near the end of World War 2. I chose to read this book as the author has written another book called The Port Fairy Murders, and because I occasionally holiday in the actual Port Fairy, I’m keen to read this book. However, the two books appear to be a part of a series, and The Holiday Murders is first.

The Holiday Murders begins on Christmas Eve in 1943, with a phone call to Inspector Titus Lambert informing him of the vicious murders of a Melbourne father and son. The family are rich and influential, and the murders have been performed with a nod to unusual aspects of the victim’s personalities. A daughter of the family who is an up and coming radio star has been spared, and she goes into hiding.

Inspector Lambert calls in Detective Joe Sable and Constable Helen Lord to assist him in the investigation, which quickly ramps up to involve Military Intelligence, who work out of Victoria Barracks. Military Intelligence suspect that the murderer is linked with a political party which draws on National Socialism for inspiration. The party is alternatively named Australia First, Australian Patriots and Our Nation, which made me snort. I expect supporters of Australia’s current One Nation party dislike the similarity of the names ‘Our Nation’ and ‘One Nation’, which the author must have chosen on purpose. Since One Nation also stirs up trouble and hatred though, the similarity is apt. (Don’t get me started on Australian politics though, as I’ll get up on my soapbox and call the supporters of this type of party idiots, and worse).

Oh yes, The Holiday Murders. Where were we? The characters. Joe and Helen both have difficulties in life and in the investigation. Joe is Jewish, at a time when horrible political parties and gullible fools were attempting to emulate the Nazis and Helen is a woman working in a male field, which can be difficult enough now. Seventy years ago it must almost have been impossible for a woman to be a police officer.

I enjoyed travelling around Melbourne in this story, particularly the references to Victoria Barracks, the Manchester Unity Building and the Windsor Hotel, all of which I am familiar with. (High tea at The Windsor is a Melbourne institution, by the way). During the 1940’s, the Windsor Hotel was the place for the wealthy to stay in Melbourne. The Manchester Unity Building was only ten years old and was at the heart of Melbourne’s business and shopping district, and during World War 2. Victoria Barracks housed the Australian War Cabinet. I think the author chose these iconic buildings very well.

The reader knows from the beginning who carried out the murders, but we don’t know the whole story, (we know ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, but are missing ‘why’, the most interesting component). We are on the side of the police as they try to find out who the murderers are and what their motives are. I was starting to get a bit worried by the end of the book, as there weren’t many pages left and there was a lot of loose ends to be tied up, but it all came together quickly, with a motive that I didn’t see coming. Things don’t end happily for all of the characters either. The story was a lot darker than I had initially expected, too.

I didn’t enjoy the psychopathic angle of the story, because I’m bit squeamish about gory details. This may not bother other readers though. I didn’t enjoy was the constant sexual references from some very twisted characters either, because I’m a bit prudish, but eventually I got bored with these weirdos and their fetishes, and eventually started thinking, ‘not again’ when they became repetitive.

However, I did enjoy the writing, the familiarity of the Melbourne locations, the goodness of some of the characters, and most of all, that the story made sense. All in all, I’m looking forward to reading The Port Fairy Murders next.

 

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The December Boys by Michael Noonan

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The December Boys by New Zealand author Michael Noonan was made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame.

The story is narrated by a boy called Choker, who along with his mates Maps, Spark, Fido and Misty, are collectively known as ‘the December boys’ because they were all left at an outback Catholic Orphanage during the same December as babies.

The story is set in the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Depression. Choker and his mates have been shouted a summer at the beach by a wealthy benefactor of the orphanage. On holidays at Captain’s Folly, an isolated beach settlement, they experience freedom in a way they never have before, roaming around and exploring the area, all the while getting to know the people who live permanently in the area.

Most of the people living in shacks, caves or sleeping rough at Captain’s Folly have been there since the Depression, and are mostly hermits and people who are unable to cope in mainstream society, but the boys are most interested in and impressed by a beautiful young woman, Teresa, who cartwheels into their hearts on their first day at the beach. The boys are even more impressed when they meet Teresa’s husband, Fearless Foley, who was once a trick motorbike rider.

When Choker overhears Fearless telling another settlement dweller that he would like to adopt one of the boys, the boy’s emotions run wild. Each boy is desperate to stay with Fearless and Teresa, to the point where they would throw each other under a bus to be the lucky one.

This is a slow story, with a lot of detailed descriptions. The story is sometimes sad, but there is a lot of fun and a strong sense of Australian humour. Australian colloquialisms are frequently used in the character’s conversations, to the point where the language could be a deterrent for non-Australian readers.

The boys’ first look at the Pacific Ocean, or according to another character, the ‘Specific,’ is a gorgeous start to the story. The boys are overwhelmed by the immensity of the ocean, the colour and the movement of the waves. The description of their first experience of entering the water is much the same, joyful and gives you the feeling of being there with them, egging each other on, experiencing the feel of the water, the strength of the waves and the taste of salt.

While I haven’t seen the movie, I believe there are a number of important differences between the book and the film. For example, the book is set during the 1930s but the movie uses the 1960s, the book tells the story of five boys while there are only four in the movie, and there are no girls or love interests for the boys in the book but there are in the movie (*sarcastic eye roll*. I don’t know why every movie needs to have a romance).

I enjoyed The December Boys, but would be hesitant to recommend it to non-Australian readers. I would be interested to learn what other people thought of this book, or the movie if anyone has seen it. Having read a blurb about the movie, I think it is a shame that the story has been altered so much, but perhaps it would be better to think about the book and the movie as two separate stories.

 

 

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Reckoning: a memoir by Magda Szubanski

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Magda Szubanski is one of my favourite Australian comedians. She was ‘Michelle’ in Michelle and Ferret (go on, Google a skit on YouTube, you know you want to), played Pixie Anne Wheatley, Chenille, and Joan Kirner in Fast Forward, which was the most popular comedy television show in Australia in its day. Magda played Mrs Hoggett in Babe, and topped that off as Sharon in Kath & Kim. It turns out she can write, too. I read Reckoning: a memoir from start to finish without stopping.

Reckoning is Magda’s story, interwoven with the story of her family and particularly that of her father, who was an assassin in Poland during World War 2. After the war he went to Scotland, where he met Magda’s mother. They married, had three children, of which Magda was the baby, and moved to Melbourne, Australia during the 1960s.

Magda tells her family’s story with enormous respect, pride and affection. It sounds as if her aptitude for comedy came from her mother, who I would have liked to have read more about, but her father’s story is stronger. She also identifies more with her Polish heritage than her Scottish side, and seems to have craved her father’s approval more than anything else. Happily, it sounds as if Magda had that, and also knew she was loved and respected by her parents too.

The family and personal stories are told very honestly. The family stories from Poland during the war are quite traumatic, and on Magda’s visits to her extended family it is clear that she and her Polish relatives continue to live with sadness and survivor’s guilt from the events of that time. Magda doesn’t hide any of her own difficulties either, such as wondering where she fits into in the world, dropping out of university, her sexuality and most of all, seeking approval from her wonderful but alpha-male type father.

My favourite part of the story was Magda’s entry into comedy. Her realisation that she needed to write her own material if she was going to get airtime was interesting and the never-before heard stories about the shows she worked on were filled with funny stories about people who I have been watching on television for years. I didn’t watch D Generation, but can see I’ll have to rectify that. Since reading the book I’ve watched some old clips of Michelle and Ferret from Fast Forward… which still make me laugh.

Magda is hilarious in Kath & Kim too, where she plays Sharon, Kim’s second-best friend. My only regret from the book is not hearing more about pashing Shane Warne, when he appeared on the show as Sharon’s boyfriend. The pash-rash on those episodes were spectacular.

I think what makes the best performers so successful is that they don’t leave anything on the table, and as a comedian, that is exactly what Magda does. Reckoning is a successful memoir for the same reason because she has let so much of herself be shown while telling her story. I can’t imagine Magda ever being anyone’s second-best friend… she is much more likely to be everyone’s favourite.

 

 

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The Lake House by Kate Morton

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My mother recommended Australian author Kate Morton to me ages ago, and I ignored her recommendation. Mum only ever read beauty books by Sophie Loren and Elizabeth Taylor, biographies about old film stars, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Queen Mother, and Agatha Christie novels. I love Agatha Christie’s stories, but the rest of Mum’s reading matter I can do without. (I’m fairly sure Sophie Loren was blessed with wonderful genes, and no matter how much spaghetti I eat, I am never going to look sultry or glamourous. Sometimes you just have to accept that what works for one of the most beautiful women in the world may not work for you). Anyway, I’m not sure what made Mum start reading novels, but after she read one book by Kate Morton, she promptly went out and bought every other book she had written.

Eventually, under sufferance, I picked up The Lake House by Kate Morton and sat down to read, fully expecting to roll my eyes and sigh like a petulant teenager at my long suffering mother’s choice of novel, before recommending a much better book to Mum. (I know, I know. I deserve a smack).

Half an hour later I was completely absorbed in the story of a family living in a lovely country house in Cornwall during the 1930s, and the mysterious disappearance of their child. There is also a present day story involving a disgraced detective becoming absorbed by the mystery of the now abandoned house and the child’s disappearance and of course, she sets out to solve the mystery. The story moves easily across the timeframes.

The characters in The Lake House are lovely too. They are believable and on the whole, good people. Even when their behaviour is immoral or suspect, the reader still sides with these characters and wants the best for them. And while I liked the characters, particularly Alice Edenvale, I loved the family’s home, Loeanneth. The house is charming, with secret tunnels, beautiful gardens, a swing in a tree, a boathouse, lake and river. What more could anyone want?

My only criticism is that the story’s central mystery, which kept me going for nearly 500 pages, was tied up in the last few pages with a string of coincidences. (I tried to discuss my dissatisfaction regarding the ending with Mum, but she wasn’t having any of it. She said the ending was perfect).

I actually have a great idea for how the story could have ended, but can’t go into details here without spoiling the book for other readers as my idea involves some changes to the earlier part of the story.

I’m planning to read more books by Kate Morton and can happily recommend The Lake House, particularly as a comfort or holiday read. Thanks, Mum.

 

 

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The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle

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The Odd Angry Shot by William Nagle isn’t very long, but it packs a huge punch. The story is based on the author’s own experiences as a soldier in the Australian Army during the Vietnam war.

The action starts at the Richmond RAAF base (near Sydney), with the narrator about to hop on a plane to Vietnam. The narrator has just celebrated his nineteenth birthday with a party in the backyard of his family home with 80 people, where his girlfriend gave him the traditional gift down behind the shed, where nobody would surprise them. The narrator is crude and unsophisticated, a stereotypical Australian man of the time.

On landing in Saigon, the narrator comments on the amount of corpses going the opposite way to him and his squadron, however he and his mates soon get used to the death and blood and vomit and constant rain and boredom and gambling which makes up their days.

He watches his mates die around him as they fight a war that they know many Australians condemn, while looking forward to going on leave where they will drink themselves senseless and spend the remainder of their money on prostitutes. The soldiers arrange fights between pet spiders and scorpions, criticise the Army cooks, make fun of bureaucracy and the military hierarchy. They shoot Vietnamese women’s sons and beat up the Vietnamese men who try to rob them. They suffer from tinea and they miss their mothers and wives and girlfriends, even though their girlfriends break up with them while they are away. Eventually, if they are lucky, they get a plane ticket home again.

The Odd Angry Shot is all the more powerful for not going into the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War. The story was made into a movie of the same name in 1979, and starred a who’s who of Australian actors of the time, including Bryan Brown, John Jarratt, John Hargreaves, Graeme Kennedy and Graeme Blundell, amongst others. The book won the National Book Council Award in 1975.

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The character’s language is very Australian and the swearing rife (also very Australian). The Odd Angry Shot is funny and tragic and probably should be taught in school, although the crudeness of the humour and language would probably make the book unsuitable for children. I expect this is a story I will remember in years to come (which is my definition of a classic).

 

 

 

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The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams

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The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is a Young Adult novel, published this year but set in Melbourne in 1986, when Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road.

There are four main characters in the story; Guy, who is failing Year 12 at school, Rafi, a Columbian girl whose mother has mental-health issues, Luke, an attractive and successful artist who cares more about himself than anyone else, and Penny, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their son.

As I read I became more and more interested in the actual story of the painting, which was of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, a poet and an artist. Picasso is said to have interpreted Dora’s sadness at being unable to have children in his Weeping Woman series of paintings. Picasso treated Dora cruelly, setting her up against his other mistresses and even after she suffered a nervous breakdown, he went out of his way to make her unhappy.

The theft of the Weeping Woman actually took place. The painting was purchased the year before the theft for about 1.5 million dollars, which was the highest price paid at the time by the NGV for an artwork. The painting disappeared one night and a note left saying that the painting had been removed for maintenance, signed by the ACT (Australian Cultural Terrorists). As ACT also stands for the Australian Capital Territory, staff at the NGV didn’t immediately realise the painting had been stolen. The thieves sent ransom notes for the return of the Weeping Woman, demanding an increase in funding for the arts. Eventually the Weeping Woman was found in a locker at the Spencer Street Train Station. The thieves have never been found.

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Guy, Rafi, Luke and Penny all, either wittingly or unwittingly, play a role in the theft of the painting and in its return. Their lives are all changed by the painting and the theft. Apart from Luke and Penny, who have a child together, they begin the story as separate characters whose lives become entwined as the story develops.

Interestingly, Penny’s party trick, which initially attracted Luke to her was something that Dora Maar did when she first met Picasso, quickly stabbing a knife between each of her fingers.

I didn’t become very attached to any of the characters, although I did have more sympathy for the girls, who had a harder lot in life than the boys in the story. The story is quite clever and I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the actual painting and the theft. I also enjoyed that the story was set in Melbourne and the 1980’s references. I suspect teenage girls would particularly enjoy The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex.

 

 

 

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The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

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The Rosie Effect by Australian author Graeme Simsion is a follow-up to The Rosie Project.

If you haven’t read The Rosie Project, go and read it. The story is funny and charming and leaves you feeling good about life in general. The Rosie Effect is more of the same. Not as good as the first book, but still enjoyable.

In The Rosie Effect, Don and Rosie have gotten married and have moved to New York. Don’s life, which was rigidly planned and executed before he met Rosie, had already been changed forever by his and Rosie’s marriage, when she announces she is pregnant.

Rosie has lost some of her joy in life, which may be a side-effect of her pregnancy, or because she is working enormously hard to complete two degrees. It may even be because marriage to Don is not ideal from her point of view. Whatever the reason, Rosie’s unhappiness had an effect on the general feel of the story.

The Rosie Effect is a comedy of mistaken ideas about Don and Rosie’s expectations and Don’s concerns about whether he is capable of being a good father. Don’s friends don’t necessarily give him the best advice, and he complicates most things, however things generally work out satisfactorily for Don.

I can’t wait for The Rosie Project to be made into a movie, and am really looking forward to seeing Don’s Gregory Peck impersonation.

Graeme Simsion has recently published a new book, The Best of Adam Sharp, featuring all new characters, which I am looking forward to reading.

 

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