Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce

I read A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce won the 2022 The Australia Vogel Literary Award, which is awarded annually to an Australian author aged under 35 for their unpublished manuscript.

The narrator of this story was Matilda, a young woman who had been emotionally manipulated since her childhood by her parents and friends. The story didn’t come right out and say if Matilda had autism, but it seemed likely as she was unable to ‘read’ other people and was very suggestible.

Matilda grew up in Canberra as an only child until her early teenage years, when her mother convinced her father they should foster Sem, a teenage boy. When Matilda’s parents separated several years later, Sem was returned to the foster care system and Matilda and her mother moved to Melbourne.

Eventually Matilda reunited with Sem in Melbourne along with Celeste, Sem’s on and off again girlfriend who Matilda already knew from their shared childhood in Canberra. Soon after, Matilda and Celeste left the city to live in a holiday shack near Eden on the south coast of NSW, while Sem came and went from their lives. One night when Matilda had far too much to drink, Sem disappeared leaving Matilda unable to remember what had transpired but being blamed for his disappearance.

I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters and thought the story would have been stronger had I felt more attached to Matilda or Sem. Celeste was overtly manipulative which made her easy to dislike, as was Matilda’s mother, who was so busy discovering herself as a middle-aged hippie that she rented out Matilda’s bedroom, leaving her daughter sleeping on the couch in their share-house.

The ending was left open which I found frustrating. I would have preferred to learn if Matilda was a victim of her family and friends or if she had been an unreliable narrator who had manipulated the reader. I tend to think she was the former.

I liked the settings, which included suburban Canberra, sweltering hot during summer and icy in winter. Matilda’s home in Melbourne was inner-city shared housing, while her and Celeste’s beach shack in Eden where the bush met the sea was lovely. I read the story over a single afternoon and thought that the writing was good, despite my lack of connection to the characters.

My purchase of A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (September).

Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson

Hold Your Fire is a book of short stories by debut Australian author Chloe Wilson.

Some of the stories were flash-fiction while others were twenty or so pages long. They were all told in the first person and were generally unsettling. Most of the characters were not likeable or were portrayed in such a way that I did not feel sympathetic towards them, which suited the element of black comedy running through the stories.

Some of the stories told of events which might really have happened, while others were more fantastical.

The following is a taste of the collection.

In Tongue-Tied, Amy, a gym teacher, and her bully of a boyfriend Peter were shown through a series of houses for sale by one of Amy’s former students, Cilla. Before becoming a teacher Amy had been an athlete, and was highly competitive and extremely driven, but Peter was even less forgiving of those who he considered to be a loser than what Amy was. When Peter exposed Cilla as a loser Amy unexpectedly found herself siding with Cilla.

Harbour was the story of hypochondriac half-sisters who went to a tropical health resort where they discover that starvation would either kill or cure them of their maladies.

In Monstera, a young woman agreed to stay on at her friend’s father’s home to nurse him while he tried to pass kidney stones. She nursed him capably but without showing any particular kindness towards him, but the sucker-punch moment was when she took a photo of her patient at his most vulnerable.

The title story Hold Your Fire was narrated by Fiona, who considered her husband and child to be weaklings. Fiona’s husband suffered from IBS and the story includes details of bodily functions that I could have done without. When three-year old Connor turned into a bully at pre-school, Fiona started liking her son better.

The stories were very polished, with funny moments here and there but on the whole, none of the characters were people who I would choose to spend time with in real life. I would gladly read a novel by Chloe Wilson in future but would prefer to see more warmth in her characters to balance out their more unpleasant traits.

Shirl by Wayne Marshall

Have a close look at the cover art of Shirl, a collection of short stories by Australian author Wayne Marshall. The picture of the man dancing and seemingly in love (or at least in lust) with a kangaroo is strange and disturbing, funny and beautiful, and I don’t ever remember being so intrigued by a book’s cover. And, the 14 stories in this collection are even better than the cover art – strange and disturbing yet familiar, funny and beautiful and memorable, and now that I’ve finished the book all I want is more stories from this author.

The collection began with Cod Opening, the story of a mad-keen fisherman nicknamed ‘Cod’ who regularly fished on the Murray River with a group of mates. Cod knew that running an unmanned spring line was illegal because it caused a cruel death for fish and birds caught in the lines, but he was so desperate to catch a huge cod that he set one anyway. When Cod caught a silvery green mermaid in his line, he was completely unmanned.

Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball is the story of a sporting theme park in Melbourne (and where else in the world could this story have been set is what I’d like to know? Melburnians believe that Melbourne is the sporting capital of the world and considering that we celebrate a horse race and a football grand final parade with a public holiday I’m inclined to agree with this opinion). Anyway, the theme park celebrated cricket, football, tennis, fishing and horse racing and more, although I don’t recall any mention of netball which was obviously a major oversight by the author, although this might have been on purpose as the stories in this collection were mainly concentrated mainly on men and their hopes and dreams, and only a very few men are brave enough to play netball.

Bruce is short but memorable. What happens when a shark showed up in the local swimming pool? Well, derr! The locals named him Bruce and fed him BBQ chickens from the local IGA supermarket (IGA supermarkets abound in small towns in country Victoria where the population isn’t big enough for a Coles or a Woolworths to swoop in and take all of the business).

A Night Out tells the story of a bloke who begrudgingly turned down a weekend with the boys because a mate asked him come around and meet his new missus, Shirl. When the narrator got to Geoff’s place, he was more than a bit surprised to see that Geoff’s missus, Shirl, was a kangaroo.

Later in the evening, Geoff asked the narrator what he thought of Shirl all the narrator could say was,

“What I reckon, Geoff,” I said as gently as possible, “is you’ve gone and shacked up with a kangaroo. Domesticated the thing too by the look of it.”

Geoff convinced the narrator to give Shirl a proper chance and after the trio spent a night together watching footy and drinking (Shirl wore a Carlton jumper) the narrator was ready to hop into a relationship with a kangaroo of his own.

One story tells of a lonely Yowie who ambled on into town to go to the Desperate and Dateless ball, while another was about a rich and easily bored man who got more than he bargained for when he bought himself a mail-order bride from another planet. Another story told of a bloke who got drunk and crossed an uncrossable line, with terrible consequences.

The very last story, Weekend in Albury was about a man whose mother went away on a Pokies weekend and never returned to her husband and children. This story felt so autobiographical that I was convinced that the narrator’s mother, the (fictional) author Wendy Thompson, is out there somewhere in the real world writing stories.

Most of the stories in Shirl are about Australian men and how they get through life, and how important their mates and sport are to them. The stories are imaginative and funny, heartbreaking and thoughtful. No pressure, Wayne Marshall, but hurry up and write something else because I really want to read it, too!

My purchase of Shirl by Wayne Marshall goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (August).

Hovering by Rhett Davis

Hovering is Australian author Rhett Davis’ first novel.

The story is set in a made-up city called Fraser which is an enhanced version of Geelong, an actual water-front city about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. In this story Melbourne doesn’t exist and Fraser has expanded around Port Phillip Bay (where Melbourne would be) and inland to the mountains. The city’s landmarks are almost recognisable as real places in Geelong, while casual references to street names that exist as places in the Western District of Victoria gave me jolt after jolt of recognition.

The story is set in the near future with the city of Fraser having a unique feature that no one could ever have predicted, having become a tourist destination for people who want to see the phenomena of the city’s streets, buildings and public areas constantly shifting to a different location of the town. Every morning people wake up to find that their house, workplace, shopping centre, sporting ground, school and other places have been relocated, and that streets and roads have changed to go in the wrong direction, causing continual traffic jams. No one knew how or why the changes occurred.

The main characters are Lydia, her teenage son George and Lydia’s sister, Alice, who had recently mysteriously returned to the family home in Fraser after years of living overseas. Lydia and Alice’s retired parents had been cruising around the artificial islands in the Pacific for years (real islands having disappeared into the sea due to climate change).

Lydia had never left Fraser but Alice’s unsettled nature had made her a continual traveller. The sisters clearly resented each other and had little tolerance for their differences.

George refused to speak, but he managed to express himself clearly to those who listened. He was the most emotionally balanced person in his family, and was extraordinarily ‘woke’ or politically correct in an almost inspirational way (in some cases people who are so politically correct can be more detrimental to their causes than helpful).

I wondered if the constant changes going on in Fraser might have been an allegory for Australia, or even of this district’s history. Before British settlement the traditional owners of the area of Geelong were the Wadawurrung people of the Kulin nation. Geelong quickly grew into a town with outlying farms expanding further and further out, and this book made me realise that the Wadawurrung people whose ancestors had lived in the district for 25,000 years must have felt extremely displaced very quickly.

George’s character was the most accepting of the constant changes in Fraser, presumably because he was young and had never known anything different. In contrast, Lydia hid herself away, burying herself in work and playing an online game in a world that had become more real to her than her own. Alice expressed herself through her controversial art.

The story was sometimes told from the point of view of one of the characters, but other parts of the story were told through texts, or alert messages sent by the government. Other parts of the story are told by trending tweets, or stories written by journalists and intercepted HTML code. I found some of these styles to be disorienting, although no doubt that was the author’s intention.

The characters were too cold for me to care about, but I found myself thinking about the displacement of Aboriginal people after European settlement in Australia and climate change when I should have been thinking about other things (work). The unpublished manuscript of Hovering won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2020.

The Beach Caves by Trevor Shearston

I was keen to read The Beach Caves by Trevor Shearston when I learned that the story had been set around Batemans Bay on the south coast of NSW, where I lived for many years before moving to Melbourne.

While the Clyde River, the national parks and the beaches settings around the Bay rang true, I was disappointed that the town itself didn’t feature apart from a reference to a Post Office Box at a Licensed Post Office that I was very familiar with!

The Beach Caves told the story of a group of university students on an archaeological dig in 1970 led by a glamorous husband and wife-team, Aled Wray and Marilyn Herr, when one of their group mysteriously disappeared.

The main character was Annette, who was an honours student studying Aboriginal lifestyles prior to European settlement under Aled’s guidance. Also on the dig was Annette’s best friend Sue.

The first site the group camped at was up the Clyde River past Nelligan, where a group of huts had been found that were older than European settlement in Australia. If I had been on the dig, I would have visited the Steampacket Hotel at Nelligan, but the group didn’t, not once during their entire stay at this location.

When a new site was discovered in caves at a beach near Batemans Bay, the group relocated there.

Then, another site that eclipsed both of the other sites in importance was found and the group divided, with Marilyn and her team heading off to the new site and Aled, Annette and the remaining students staying at the beach caves with the friction between Aled and Marilyn filtering down to their students.

Brian, a young man whom Annette had been growing fond of chose to go with Marilyn’s group and Annette was disappointed. Soon after, she realised that Brian was infatuated with Marilyn and became jealous.

When Marilyn disappeared everyone was a suspect. Annette’s awareness of Brian’s crush left her in the difficult position of having to decide what to tell the police and what to keep to herself.

The story then skipped ahead thirty four years, to resolve the mystery and to show the impact of Annette’s decision when she spoke to the police.

I was surprised that the characters on the dig did not engage with local Aboriginal people to discuss their findings, particularly when it became obvious to them that there had been a continuity of use of the area right up until the time of the dig. Perhaps that was how things were done at the time, although it seemed like a massive oversight on the part of the team not to have gone straight to the source for information.

I enjoyed the setting of The Beach Caves and found the descriptions of the area to be realistic although as I have already mentioned I would have liked at least one visit into Batemans Bay itself. I particularly enjoyed reading about the discoveries the team made during the first half of the story, but lost some interest in the story after Marilyn’s disappearance.

The Signal Line by Brendan Colley

The Signal Line by Brendan Colley won the Unpublished Manuscript Prize in the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Awards. 

The main character was Geo, who had just returned to Hobart to convince his brother Wes to sell their parent’s house so he could use his share of their inheritance to continue auditioning for his musical career in Europe. The night Geo arrived, Wes, a detective, collected Geo from the airport but before returning to their family home took a detour to the Royal Hobart Hospital to interview a group of Italians who had been sent after mysteriously arriving in Hobart after embarking on a train in Rome. Geo soon realised that Wes’ career was on thin ice as he interpreted the Italians’ story about a ghost train for Wes, the police and the hospital staff.

Go also quickly realised that Wes’ drinking and belligerent temper had caused his marriage to come to an end and that Wes had been living at their parent’s home, sleeping in his father’s reclining chair in the living room just as their father had used to do. Wes refused to sell the house, change anything or even clean up or throw away rubbish in their parent’s house, insisting instead that the house remain a shrine to their father.

Geo, however, had always aligned with their mother and had left Hobart vowing never to return after a terrible fight with his father after their mother’s death.

When Geo met Sten, a mysterious Swede who was chasing the ghost train, he invited Sten to stay with him and Wes (all of them sleeping on chairs and sofas in the living room with Wes).

When Geo and Sten randomly met a couple of idealistic young backpackers Geo invited them to stay at his parent’s house too. In return for their accommodation Sten and the backpackers offered to paint the house which Geo hoped would get them a better price if he could convince Wes to sell it, but more importantly, the others had the ability to defuse Wes’ anger, something Geo couldn’t do on his own.

Sten also introduced Geo and Wes to a Hobart book store owner who was documenting the ghost train’s appearance as well as other paranormal activity. As a group, they drank with Wes and smoked Sten’s marijuana before roaring around the suburbs Tasmania chasing the ghost train, communicating with spirits and taking other paranormal activity in their stride. The dope probably helped.

I believed in the characters and their causes from the beginning, along with the ghost train. I liked and wanted the best for Geo, whose relationship with his father had been completely different to the relationship which Wes had enjoyed. As I learned more about the historic circumstances that made Geo and Wes who they were today, I actually found it in myself to want the best for Wes, too.

Readers who know Hobart will love gallivanting around town with this oddball group in The Signal Line.

My purchase of The Signal Line continues my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (June).

Treasure & Dirt by Chris Hammer

Treasure & Dirt by Australian author Chris Hammer was a ripper of a story, set a remote, opal mining community in outback New South Wales.

The story began with ratters going down another man’s mine at Finnegan’s Gap to rob the mine of opals, only to find the mine’s owner down the mine, dead and hanging from a cross. After robbing the mine, one of the ratters phoned Crime Stoppers anonymously to report the death.

A homicide detective from Sydney, Ivan Lucic and Nell Buchanan, a Detective Constable who had served her apprenticeship in Finnegan’s Gap were assigned to the case, heading straight out to the mine to view the crime scene after arriving in town. It wasn’t long before they learned that the dead man’s nearest neighbour had good reason to hate him, having been the cause of his wife’s death many years ago.

With each fact Nell and Ivan uncovered and with every piece of gossip they learned during their investigation, a new can of worms was opened up. The dead man’s daughter had a AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) against him which forbid him from coming near her, he had connections to a religious cult and two powerful Western Australian billionaires were fighting out a business deal over a lucrative mine in the vicinity of the dead man’s opal mine.

Meanwhile, grey nomads were swarming through Finnegan’s Gap, soaking up the outback experience of forty-degree heat and hordes of flies from the comfort of their four-wheel drives and state of the art caravans.

Ivan and Nell had issues of their own to deal with, too. Ivan was a problem gambler who couldn’t resist the pokies while Nell had to deal with the wrath of the local police, who believed she had sold out one of their own when she had been stationed in Finnegan’s Gap. Both Ivan and Nell became caught up in internal investigations of their own while investigating the murder also, Ivan because of his close relationship with a workmate who was forced to retire over allegations by the Police Force’s Professional Standards department, while Nell had been caught up in a fling with the most attractive bloke in Finnegan’s Gap who had unfortunately turned out to be a drug dealer.

I liked Nell and Ivan’s working relationship very much, and particularly appreciated Nell, who was a strong, determined character. I also liked the outback setting and enjoyed reading about how this remote community worked. The story moved quickly and kept me interested, although by the end I did think there were too many complicated threads running through the story which had to be tied together for the mystery to be solved.

I would happily read more books by Chris Hammer and would love to see Ivan or Nell or both characters feature in future stories.

My purchase of Treasure & Dirt continues my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (April).

I purchased this book from Cow Lick Bookshop in Colac.

Bluebird by Malcolm Knox

I first came across Bluebird by Australian author Malcolm Knox after reading Whispering Gums’ review. Although I was tempted by Sue’s review, it was the cover of the book that really sucked me in. The colour of the sand, the cliffs, the water and the man’s hair and sub-burned back reminded me of every beach on the south coast of NSW that I’ve ever set foot on.

The location of this story is as important as any of the characters. Bluebird is a beach town not far out of Sydney, where the long-time locals are hanging on to the past by their fingertips. Gordon, the main character, is a former journo in his fifties who lives in The Lodge, a beach shacked perched on the cliff above Bluebird Beach. Also living at The Lodge is Gordon’s ex-missus Kelly, and their son Ben, along with Gordon’s extraordinarily capable god-daughter, Lou.

Kelly and Gordon should have broken up years ago but didn’t, but after she slept with her old flame and Gordon’s best mate, the aptly nick-named ‘Dog’ at their joint 50th birthday party, their marriage finally came to an end. Unable to live separately due to their lack of finances, Gordon and Kelly moved into The Lodge after Gordon was gifted a share in the property by Kelly’s scheming but unseen step-mother.

Gordon was possibly the most passive person in Australia. He felt himself to be unable to leave Bluebird for a better life up north because of his love for Ben and his need to care for his ageing and difficult parents, but most of all he was hamstrung by his love for Bluebird and The Lodge itself, which was falling apart around them.

Lou, who came to live with Gordon after a murderous incident involving her parents, was determined to help Gordon financially after he used up all of his savings then went into debt trying to keep the Lodge habitable.

None of Gordon’s surfer mates who were all aged in their fifties could afford to live at Bluebird anymore, but they managed to do so by moving into the spare bedrooms of their widowed mothers. Bludgers all of them, but despite their own financial situations and lack of initiative when it come to getting a job, Gordon’s mates did their best to help Gordon out, even though they knew that the developers would eventually replace The Lodge with a McMansion, as had already happened throughout most of the town.

I was amused by the names of Gordon’s surfie mates, Red Cap, Snake, Dog, Cnut (rhymes with Peanut, just in case you were wondering), Chooka and a host of Chooka-alikes, multiple Maccas and a former State Champ whose number of surfing competition wins varied enormously during the telling of the story.

Knox’s snappy writing style and humour reminded me a little of Kathy Lette’s. I enjoyed Bluebird but think an overseas reader might need a translator to understand the Australian slang.

And if that cover doesn’t make an Aussie ex-pat fair dinkum homesick, then nothing will!

My purchase of Bluebird by Malcolm Knox continues my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (February).

I purchased this book from Blarney Books in Port Fairy.

You can read Whispering Gums’ review here:

The Last Bookshop by Emma Young

The Last Bookshop is Australian author Emma Young’s first novel.

The Last Bookshop is a contemporary story set in Perth, the capital city of Western Australia.

Cait is the main character. She owns the last bookshop in Perth’s most fashionable shopping area and is slowly going broke. When Cait’s leasing agency put the rent up in an attempt to squeeze Book Fiend out of its rented premises so that a high-end fashion house could move in, Cait’s loyal customers rallied around her to try to save the shop.

Cait had recently started a relationship with one of her customers, James, who she met when he was shopping in Book Fiend for self-help relationship books*. James worked for the leasing agency who managed Cait’s tenancy and being much better off financially than she was, regularly shouted her expensive meals and wine, even though Cait was conscious of the imbalance of their relationship. James was lovely in general, but lacking in substance. When Cait’s dearest friend became terminally ill he wasn’t able to provide her with the emotional support she needed and later he became jealous and angry with Cait while she was working long hours to keep her business going. Perhaps not surprisingly, James eventually disappeared completely when she needed him most.

I enjoyed reading about Cait’s relationships with her customers, who were people of all ages, wealth statuses with varied reading interests. I also enjoyed the constant references within the story to real books, many of which were funny, such as a customer requesting a book by Al Chemist when she meant The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho or someone else asking for a book called ‘Falling Pine Trees’ instead of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.

I also liked the conversations Cait and her dearest friend had about C.S. Lewis and his lover, Mrs Moore as they read his diary, All My Road Before Me. I sniffed at customers who complained to Cait that they could buy books cheaper from Amazon than from her shop and I smiled when I recognised books Cait recommended to her customers. The recommendations included Jane Harper’s The Dry or Stephen King’s The Shining, depending on the customer’s reading tastes.

I also added a book to my own list after learning of it for the first time while reading this story. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is the story of an Australian bank robber and heroin addict who escaped jail and went to India, which has apparently inspired a generation of people to quit their day jobs and go off back-packing. I don’t know why I’ve never heard of Shantaram, but according to Cait second-hand copies of the book walked off the shelves at Book Fiend.

The Last Bookshop was perhaps slightly too long and Cait’s ruminations were slightly repetitive, but otherwise I enjoyed the story and would be happy to read Emma Young’s next book.

*Many years ago I worked in a shop alongside a woman who had married a customer of the shop. I was amused at the time when she said how well you could get to know a person based on small, daily interactions and by looking at what they purchased. So far as I know their marriage is still going strong!

One Hundred Days by Alice Pung

I’m an Alice Pung-fan. I liked Unpolished Gem, Laurinda and can now add her latest novel One Hundred Days to the list.

One Hundred Days is set around the mid 1980s in Melbourne. Karuna, the narrator, was 16 years old and pregnant when she began telling her story to her unborn baby.

After Karuna’s parents separated she and her mother moved into a two-bedroom flat on the fourteenth floor of an inner city Housing Commission tower in Melbourne.

The first time I saw one of these towers, I was horrified. At that time I was a child living on a farm and I found the height of the towers and their bland appearance to be frightening. Neither could I imagine how anyone could live in such a small space, boxed in with people living in flats on top of them, underneath them and beside them. I can’t imagine living in such close proximity to so many other people but now I realise that the apartments in the towers are people’s homes, that the residents benefit from being close to the CBD and public transport and that for those with mobility issues, finance issues or for a myriad or other reasons, the towers provide the opportunity to be part of a community.

At first, I thought Karuna’s mother was crazy, and not just because she insisted on sharing a bed with her teenage daughter, leaving the other bedroom in their apartment for storage. Grand Mar, as Karuna called her in the story, locked Karuna inside their flat for what she said was her own good and was extraordinarily tight with money, refusing to give Karuna a birthday party or allow Karuna to buy junk food. When Karuna’s father gave her money, Grand Mar stole it from her.

Karuna hid her pregnancy from her mother for as long as she could. Grand Mar was horrified when she realised, and insisted to anyone who would listen that Karuna had been tricked by a boy. Surprisingly, Grand Mar stood by Karuna, all the while lamenting her own bad fortune at having married a no-good man herself, then having her daughter do this terrible thing to her.

Worst of all though, in Karuna’s eyes, Grand Mar insisted that when the baby was born she would be the mother and that Karuna would be the baby’s sister.

Karuna told her story as if it was a letter to her baby. She explained how she fell pregnant – not quite by accident, but not exactly meaning to, either.

As the story went on, I realised that Karuna’s mother was living her life according to the values she had brought with her from the Philippines and that she loved and wanted the best for her daughter. She worked two jobs and spent her hard-earned money on delicacies such as Balut, a steamed, fertilized bird egg for Karuna to eat during her pregnancy, believing that such food would be nourishing for her daughter.

The one hundred days of the book’s title refers to the hundred days after Karuna gave birth, for which her mother had been saving her money so that Karuna and the baby could stay at home, safe and loved and protected.

Karuna’s story was sad, but the book was also filled with humour and love and hope. Grand Mar may have been one of the most annoying and deluded women in Melbourne, but as Karuna matured she found herself able to stand up to her mother when it counted, and was able to negotiate with her mother for what she thought would be better for herself and her baby, while still allowing her mother to love her and for her to love her mother without being abused, coerced or controlled.

My purchase of One Hundred Days by Alice Pung starts off to meet my New Year’s resolution for 2022 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (January).

I purchased this book from Ironbird Books in Port Fairy.

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