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willoyd

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    Wharfedale, Yorkshire
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    birding, cycling (mainly touring), running, walking, family history.

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  1. Four more to note whilst progressing to page 400 or so in Ulysses: 12. The Perfect Golden Circle by Benjamin Myers **** A reread for one of my book groups of a book I enjoyed last June. Similar to The Offing in style (see book 10 this year), again set in a sultry summer in the English countryside. This time a study of a friendship between 2 men, creating crop circles in the wheat fields of southern England, each chapter centred on a single creation. I love Myers's almost otherworldly descriptions, although his biggest weakness, IMO, is a tendency to overelaborate simile - trying just a bit too hard. When he keeps it figurative-lite (or not at all), he's superb! His central characters have an interesting depth to them, and there's a lovely thread of gentle humour throughout. Eminently readable, this actually improved on second reading. The Offing still has the edge though, but it is just an edge! 13. The Years by Annie Ernaux ***** A reread (last read in December) for a book group. Better than I remember it, because this time I made sure I tracked events recorded, based as it is so much on French cultural and political history, about which I know little beyond a basic list of presidents. The whole approach fascinates, and it generated some lively discussion, pretty much all of which was very positive about the book. 14. Caroline by Richmal Crompton ** Another book group read, and rather underwhelming. Crompton is of course best known for her Just William books, but she wrote a significant number of adult novels too, most of which have disappeared into the print ether, hard to obtain even second-hand. A few have been reprinted, and generally acclaimed, but I have to say if this is an accurate sample, her writing hasn't aged well for me, and this felt badly dated, and very predictable. I'm also reading Family Roundabout in the Persephone Press edition. Similar in style, but hopefully just a bit less so on both fronts (although not convinced yet). 15. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo **** A classic of Mexican writing apparently, which is why I chose it for my Reading the World project, included in a list of world's 100 most important works by the Nobel committee, and a major influence on Latin American literature. Slim at only 125 pages but anything but a short or straightforward read with chronological shifts, dead talking to the alive (and other dead!), and a style of writing that sometimes makes it quite hard to workout who is being written about and who is talking. To be honest, half way through I was feeling decidely unenamoured, but it grew on me and is, I think, a book that needs to be read more than once to work out what is going on, and interesting enough that it's worth reading more than once! I was relieved to read that even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the writer of the Foreword of the translation I read, reckoned it's a difficult one! I'm not going to write a more detailed review, simply because I don't really have a lot more I feel I can say. Maybe once I've given it another go!
  2. 11. Not A River by Selva Almada ***** Much as I'm loving Ulysses, it's a book that I think I'm going to need the occasional break from, and this is the first! Reading various articles on publishers of books in translation (particularly a Guardian profile piece on several UK indie publishers), my eyes picked out this book from Charco Press in a tabletop display in my local Waterstones during a browse earlier this week. I've not read any of their books yet, but the name was familiar from the articles. A quick glance, and I knew I was hooked, not least by the production values (I'm a sucker, especially, for French flaps!). I've since discovered it's on the longlist for this year's International Booker and, having read it, I'm not surprised. At only 99 pages (including a fascinating translator's note), this was a short but absolutely compulsive read: two friends are on a river fishing trip with the teenage son of another friend who died on a previous visit. They successfully land (by shooting!) a monster ray, which attracts the attention and the ire of local villagers, threatening as the book progresses to boil over in violence. The story tells of how the relationship pans out, with flashbacks centred both on the fishermen and the villagers' lives fleshing out both how they got here, and why things work out the way they do. It's a carefully, tightly woven narrative, made all the tighter by Almeda's very lean language and the spartan use of punctuation and paragraphing. So often this latter makes life harder, but the author's style rapidly grew on me, and it really did add to the atmosphere and my involvement as a reader (I may have been helped by the fact that I'm a few hundred pages into Ulysses, which has similar traits that actually made this feel relatively easy!). Almeda's focus is primarily on aspects of masculinity, much toxic, in a strongly patriarchal society, and some of the fallout from this, with this being the third in a thematically related trilogy of books (they each stand alone, with no narrative or character crossover, so don't need to be read in order). Yet, whilst the questions are asked and themes aired, this is also, in its simplest terms, a brilliantly told story, with a twist that both took me utterly by surprise, and made me go back to reread whole sections (easy enough when there's only 99 pages!) to tease out the clues, indeed large bites of narrative meaning, that I'd missed. This was a book which produced a genuine "Oh I see it now!" moment well after I'd reached the end. Maybe (probably!) I'm just a bit thick, but I did enjoy the revelatory experience! So, a very happy impulse choice (perhaps not the right word, as this is a very dark book!), and a great one for Argentina, the 37th country to be visited in Reading The World.
  3. Having finished The Sorrows of War, and Benjamin Myers' The Offing, have moved on to the next big one, perhaps THE big one, Ulysses. About 150 pages in, and whilst it's challenging and I'm glad of some help from a reading guide and an annotated edition, I'm loving it. We'll see how it develops.
  4. Currently reading the big one! Could well not be posting much over the next month or so, as have at last got stuck into a book that have been intending to get to grips with for some time now, my choice for Ireland in Reading the World - the almost inevitable Ulysses*! Am around 150 pages in (Leopold Bloom has just arrived at the cemetery). Am being helped along by Patrick Hastings' The Guide to James Joyce's Ulysses, which has a useful summary of each episode, which I'm reading as a follow-up - and it does help. I've also got one of the annotated versions on my Kindle, and that's been really useful too understanding some of the references, although one could get hopelessly bogged down if checking out each one! But even before using these, I'm starting to find it utterly addictive. In places it's almost hypnotic in its rhythms. It's particularly picked up since Leopold Bloom appeared (in section 4, Calypso) - his internal narrative is rather more down to earth than Stephen Dedalus's and have almost instiinctively warmed to him. If anything (and only so far!) have found it an easier read than expected, although section 3 (Proteus) left me gasping rather especially at the start. It's going to need a reread though, I can already see that!! In the meantime, I had expected that I might need to intersperse with some lighter reading and that I would likely have to be quite structured/organised in my reading to get through, but at present, I'm loving the exploration and positively wanting to pick it up and get stuck into the next bit, so we'll see! *In fact, Ulysses was from the word go, at the heart of the project, as set it as the baseline, the earliest, book that could be read. I started Reading The World in 2022, the centenary year of the book's publication, and it was the first book I chose for a country. Sort of made sense that books should come from the last 100 years - or at least in the years since Ulysses was published.
  5. 10. The Offing by Benjamin Myers ***** We're reading a Myers book for my next book group (The Perfect Golden Circle), but as I've read it before (I may still reread) I decided to try one of his that I hadn't read. My local indie shop owner, knowing I was after something a bit lighter, suggested this. Spot on! It's an elegiac look back by the narrator, Robert, to a time just after the Second World War when, as a young man on the cusp of moving from school to the mines in his Durham coalfield village, decides to 'take off' for a few weeks in the summer to explore the world around him on foot. He lands up in Robin's Hood Bay (on the North Sea coas)t, and meets up with and develops a friendship with an older woman living on her own. It's a Bildungsroman, but aside from that, reminds me very much of perhaps my favourite book, A Month In the Country, as in both the (young male) narrator's character and relationships develop over an English rural summer with a quietly powerful long term impact on their life. - it's not quite there, not being as nuanced, nor with quite the variety of tone and he plot development that was part of what marked AMITC out, but it was a beautifully poetic read with an interesting development, that I can see myself going back to. Benjamin Myers is an author who is gradually growing on me - he's not (so far anyway!) spectacular or showy (although I'm told that a couple of his books that I have yet to read are very different), but quietly gets under your skin. An initial five star read,but could easily get kicked up a level later. (BTW, 'offing' is apparently the name for the distant part of the sea that's in view - the part where the horizon meets the sky).
  6. Book #36: The Sorrow of War by Nao Binh for Vietnam ** A classic of the Vietnamese war I understand, on a par with All Quiet on the Western Front and other war greats. I can see sort of see why, but personally I found this a tough, unrewarding read, boring me rigid before I reached half way, and struggling to make it to the end of what is, after all, only a slim 220 pages or so. Graphic in detail (the even mildly squeamish should be wary), unrelenting in its grimness, it may well be an all too starkly accurate portrayal of what the war was like, but I also found it repetitious and narrow in its language (this, of course, may be a function of the translation), equally repetitious in its narrative, and disjointed in its telling - chronological this is not (I don't normally find this a problem, but on this occasion it just confused). The odd attempt at metafiction just felt clumsy. All of this, for some readers (actually, most readers from the reviews - I'm definitely in a minority here) may well add to the impact, or carry this into the realms of the classic, but I'm afraid it just lost me about a quarter of the way in, and with only occasional remissions, it remained that way to the end, by which time I was really having to force myself not to leave it unfinished (I'm really trying to ensure I read books all the way through for this project, even if it's one I'd normally abandon). I'm sure this is down to inadequacy as a reader on my part, but this was a book I was glad, relieved, to put behind me.
  7. 09. The Sorrow of War by Nao Binh ** The book for Vietnam in my Reading The World project. This is a classic of the Vietnamese war I understand, on a par with All Quiet on the Western Front and other war greats. I can see sort of see why, but personally I found this a tough, unrewarding read, boring me rigid before I reached half way, and struggling to make it to the end of what is, after all, only a slim 220 pages or so. Graphic in detail (the even mildly squeamish should be wary), unrelenting in its grimness, it may well be an all too starkly accurate portrayal of what the war was like, but I also found it repetitious and narrow in its language (this, of course, may be a function of the translation), equally repetitious in its narrative, and disjointed in its telling - chronological this is not (I don't normally find this a problem, but on this occasion it just confused). The odd attempt at metafiction just felt clumsy. All of this, for some readers (actually, most readers from the reviews - I'm definitely in a minority here) may well add to the impact, or carry this into the realms of the classic, but I'm afraid it just lost me about a quarter of the way in, and with only occasional remissions, it remained that way to the end, by which time I was really having to force myself not to leave it unfinished (I'm really trying to ensure I read books all the way through for this project, even if it's one I'd normally abandon). I'm sure this is down to inadequacy as a reader on my part, but this was a book I was glad, relieved, to put behind me.
  8. Just finished The Marriage Question by Claire Carlisle, and have now started The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (Reading The World project book for Vietnam)
  9. 08. The Marriage Question by Claire Carlisle **** Read as a follow up to Daniel Deronda, this is a biographical study of George Eliot's life with George Lewes and, to a lesser extent, John Cross after Lewes's death. It's also as much a study of the influence of her 'married' life on her novels. It's an enthralling read, providing considerable insight, and I feel I learned much about both Eliot's life and her writing. Inevitably, I found the chapters covering Deronda and Middlemarch, my most recent and favourite George Eliot books, the most interesting, but the rest was never less so, and I came away keen to both read further and reread (although twice through Silas Marner may be enough already!). Carlisle is a Professor of Philosophy at KCL, and this was transparently obvious in her writing: aside from her extensive discussions on Eliot's philosophy, there's even a chapter so entitled. I have to admit however, that she lost me on occasions, and there were one or two points where I glided rather bemused over the surface for a couple of pages, but the book soon retrieved me the other side. I readily admit that this is almost certainly down to my intellectual failings - I am certainly no George Eliot on that front, as she sounds to have had a formidable mind - the depth of knowledge she insisted on developing on each subject before she wrote on it was remarkable. I was, in contrast, surprised, having long felt that she was something of a feminist icon (she still is IMO, but in a different way perhaps!), as to how much she conformed to the Victorian model of a wife's role with both Lewes and Cross, even if, in Lewes's case, she was strong enough to continue their relationship openly unmarried. Their relationship may not have been acceptable to Victorian society as a whole, but their was still something very upright in the Victorian manner in the arrangements between Lewes and his two partners, once one scratches the surface. Overall, then, an involving, illuminating read, which has encouraged me to further develop my acquaintance with Eliot's novels (perhaps Adam Bede next?) and to read further on the full extent of her life - I have the Rosemary Ashton biography on my shelves, so that's a distinct possibility later this year.
  10. 07. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout **** The book for Maine in my Tour of the USA. I originally had Richard Russo's Empire Falls down for this, not least because I'd be somewhat underwhelmed by my previous effort at a Strout novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, but a book group discussion (where I was in a minority of one in my views on the author's work!) encouraged me to give her another go - and given the success of this book (Pulitzer Prize winner) it seemed the obvious one. It's construction is also one that intrigued, the novel being formed from 13 short stories. Well, I'm very glad to have read Olive and, whilst I can't say I have been completely converted, it was certainly a far more rewarding experience than the one with Lucy Barton. Or, perhaps, 'appreciated' would be a better word, as books as downbeat as this are rarely 'enjoyable'! It's certainly beautifully written: I was caught up in the writing from the outset, and loved the little details, the turns of phrase and the internal monologues; characters and place were strongly wrought. I found the development of Olive herself particularly fascinating, the way she ran as a thread through the 13 stories, sometimes the main character, rather more often introduced sideways, almost a cameo on occasions. The themes of older age, personal isolation (even when surrounded by others), and contrasting perceptions and experiencing the same events, also added to the coherence and interest, making me sit back after each story and reflect on what I'd just read. Characters were not necessarily likeable (far from it - there weren't many that were in fact, including Olive herself), but they were interesting. And yet, and yet...whilst this worked for me as a collection of connected short stories, it didn't quite make it as a novel in the same way that, for instance, Jonathan Escoffier's If I Survive You did. Whilst there were elements of connection, in the end the stories themselves were just too fragmented to create the coherence that a novel needs. That fragmentation was created in a a number of ways, none enough on their own, but together too much. Firstly, the chronology is out of sequence. This in itself isn't a major issue, but when you read in the first story that Olive's husband Henry has retired, and then in the second story that he's thinking of retiring, it just jolts one out of immersion, prompts checking and questioning before settling (slightly uncertain) back in, and leaves one never quite trusting the thread of the narrative after that. It might be a set of short stories, but it's also a novel, and whilst plenty of novels use time shifts etc (often to advantage), there's a reason, and here there seems to be no good reason for doing so. Secondly, the characters are too fragmented, or at least isolated. The Kitteridge family provide some continuity, with Olive, Henry and son Christopher appearing throughout. One or two other characters appear in more than one story, but in general, once a person has been written about, they largely vanish. Given that this is meant to be a relatively small community (or at least that's the impression), that just didn't work for me - I'd expect people to appear and reappear. It also proved unsatisfactory. If you're going to have a dramatic event in a novel, then one expects, indeed wants, to learn something of the outcome of that event. You just don't have one, and then no mention of it or those involved ever again. Finally, there's the repetition. In several later stories we are told things that we already know about: we've read all about them only a story/chapter or so earlier. The copyright page tells us that several of the stories have been published previously (over a 15 year period), which is fine, but if they are now being brought together as a novel, then they need editing and co-ordinated. There was also a feeling of sameness to several of the stories - we are dealing with different people (by name), but rather too similar characters/scenarios? The disjunct between novel and short stories was also driven home by the fact that for a small community, there's an awful lot of drama: murder, hostage taking, suicide (more than one), accidental killings, along with all the other life threatening natural hazards of life. It's not quite Midsomer but it still seems a bit OTT, and maybe lent to that sameness feeling? Never mind being downbeat about old age, I think most would inhabitants of Crosby, Maine, would be grateful, even relieved, to make it that far. I think that's partly because one piece of such drama in a short story is fine - it works, it's what the story is centred around. But drama after drama, in each chapter, is too much for a novel. The result was that, whilst some of the drama worked well for me early on, by the second half of the book,I was grateful for the stories focusing on the domestic. However, whilst I feel I've focused rather on the negatives, in the greater scheme of things they are rather more blemishes than deep seated faults. I found so much of this compulsive reading, not least the character of Olive herself. She's obviously not immediately likeable, if at all, but there's a humanity to her that gives her huge depth, and makes you wonder quite what you would make of her yourself. There's an ongoing thread around her relationship with Christopher that raises all sorts of questions, discussion points, issues of witness reliability etc worthy of a whole book on its own, never mind everything else - it's superbly handled by the author, and is one of the most thought provoking threads I've read in fiction for some time (not least because it's so relevant to aspects of my life). So, an intriguing book (I rarely write as much as this in review), stronger if regarded in its raw form as a collection of individual short stories. I certainly intend to try out more of Elizabeth Strout, and more specifically re-examine Lucy Barton. She may not be a 'favourite' author, but is one that is has made me think, and I'm interested to see what I make of some of her other work.
  11. Book #35: The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross for Grenada ***** The book for Grenada in my Reading The World project. I don't often read crime fiction, although I am a fan of both Simenon (Maigret) and Leon (Brunetti), and have enjoyed a fair few others (admittedly usually historical fiction, like CJ Sampson). However, this appealed from the word go, and in the event didn't disappoint. As with all the best crime fiction, it's so much more. Yes, it has a good plot (and this is not cosy crime, having corruption, child abuse and statutory rape at the heart of the problem), but that's not what makes a book for me. What I enjoyed were the strongly drawn characters (both male and female), the sense of place (a major part of why I so enjoy Simenon and Leon), and the insights into island culture and politics. The author tries to reflect the local patois in his dialogue, and yet still manages to leave it eminently readable and understandable, only demanding a couple of rereads when I realised I'd misunderstood something! In short, I find this pretty much unputdownable, reading into the early hours to finish off last night - that doesn't happen often with me! And, as a confirmation of how good I thought this was, I've already ordered Ross's other two novels from my local bookshop. Whether it gets upgraded to 6-star/favourite status later, time will tell, but in the meantime, this is an easy 5-star grading.
  12. 06. The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross ***** The book for Grenada in my Reading The World project. I don't often read crime fiction, although I am a fan of both Simenon (Maigret) and Leon (Brunetti), and have enjoyed a fair few others (admittedly usually historical fiction, like CJ Sampson). However, this appealed from the word go, and in the event didn't disappoint. As with all the best crime fiction, it's so much more. Yes, it has a good plot (and this is not cosy crime, having corruption, child abuse and statutory rape at the heart of the problem), but that's not what makes a book for me. What I enjoyed were the strongly drawn characters (both male and female), the sense of place (a major part of why I so enjoy Simenon and Leon), and the insights into island culture and politics. The author tries to reflect the local patois in his dialogue, and yet still manages to leave it eminently readable and understandable, only demanding a couple of rereads when I realised I'd misunderstood something! In short, I find this pretty much unputdownable, reading into the early hours to finish off last night - that doesn't happen often with me! And, as a confirmation of how good I thought this was, I've already ordered Ross's other two novels from my local bookshop. Whether it gets upgraded to 6-star/favourite status later, time will tell, but in the meantime, this is an easy 5-star grading.
  13. Thank you both - I'll do my best! TBH I find it personally useful - especially when I can't remember a thing about a book I read only a few months ago!!
  14. 05. Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh *(*) I picked this up in our local bookshop as the premise intrigued me, being (apparently) based on a real incident in 1950s France, when an entire village (including animals!) succumbed to some form of (never identified) mass poisoning. On this, the author bases a 'darkly erotic mystery'. There was certainly a lushness, an elegance of writing that initially drew me in, giving the book an instant appeal, but after the (promising) first twenty pages or so when the two principal couples are introduced and developed (baker and wife with non-existent sex life, he obsessed with the 'perfect loaf'; metropolitan 'ambassador' and wife Violet, interesting sex life, a source of increasing obsession for the baker's wife Elodie) things started to deteriorate. The whole sexual aspect felt increasingly unlikely and contrived (and disjointed), whilst the the only mystery for me was a growing sense of confusion, wondering what on earth was going on, and had the author lost the plot (literally)? The story, mainly told in the first person by Elodie, interspersed with letters to Violet from Elodie written long after the events being described, felt increasingly disjointed and engendered irritation rather than intrigue (morsels of the outcome being dripped into the story by these letters). Relationships and plot progression just became more and more obscure, especially as one was never sure if Elodie was fantasising, recounting fantasy, or actually giving us the reality; there's unreliable narrator and unreliable narrator! To be honest, I found this easier and easier to put down and harder and harder to pick up; in short, I was bored, this coming over increasingly as more an exercise in style than a piece of narrative fiction. I finally forced myself to sit down and read the last 60 or so pages (it's only 180 pages long) in one sitting, as I realised I simply wasn't going to reach the finishing line otherwise. And when I got there? Nothing, or at least little of any consequence or interest to this reader. In fact, a thorough anti-climax, particularly in relation to the mystery that wasn't - because the mystery I was interested in is what happened over the mass poisoning (touched on throughout), and that really wasn't what the author was interested in after all. Yes, the 'darkly erotic' bit was resolved, but then I'd never found that interesting (and certainly not 'erotic'). In one phrase? Elegantly tedious. Not sure whether to give this one star, or allow a second for the writing, because strictly speaking the ending took it beyond being just 'disappointing' (2 stars) into the genuinely unlikeable (1 star).
  15. 04. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot ***** Read for one of my book groups. Having said that, this has long been on my to read list, and I was grateful to be kickstarted to actually read this huge tome - by far and away the longest book I've read in the past few years, coming in at 900 pages in Everyman Classic edition (and just over 1000 pages and 2 volumes in my 1930s Collins Clear Type Press edition!). Right from the outset, I would say that it's not (IMO!) quite in the same league as Middlemarch, but it is a powerful, intricate, fascinating read, that never lost my interest in the 3 weeks or so that it took me to read. In many respects (and it's often claimed to be as such) it's almost two books rolled into one: the story of spoiled, almost childlike, Gwendolyn Harleth and her marriage to perhaps one of the nastiest characters in fiction, Henleigh Grandcourt, and that of Daniel Deronda, foster son of Grandcourt's uncle, Sir Hugo Mallinger, and his search for self-identity. Indeed, it has been argued that the book(s) would have been better if separated, one critic (FR Leavis) in particular arguing that if it wasn't for the burden of the latter story, the former would be one of the great classics. Hmmm. I can see where this comes from, but the fact is that the two parts are integral to each other for the whole book. Gwendolyn and Deronda are foils for each other's development (although Gwendolyn is initially so self-centred that she barely notices anything else Daniel might be doing or thinking), and Gwendolyn and Mirah are important foils to each other in their relationship with Deronda. And how would Leavis handle Daniel's 'journey' if cutting out his relationship with Mordecai? On the other hand, there have been many (mostly interested in the Zionist aspects) who would discard the Gwendolyn thread. Ridiculous! But, I can understand where these arguments come from. With two major plot lines, each in itself worthy of its own book, it's not surprising that this novel is so big. It's thus all too often encumbered (and yes, I'm afraid it does feel that way at times) with having to cut away from one narrative thread to deal with the other: the two only really come fully together in the final hundred and fifty pages or so (when the action transfers to Genoa), only nudging up against each other at varying points in the previous 750! But, having said that, I did find watching the development of these two very different characters absolutely fascinating. What I think is easy to forget is how radical this book must have been at the time of publication, with Eliot's Jewish plotline, a time when anti-semitism was almost engrained in English society - it was certainly not appreciated by a fair proportion of her readership. My biggest regret though on this side is that Mirah, so central to the novel, is so thin as a character, particularly alongside the superbly developed Gwendolyn. We see into the heart of the latter, whilst we barely scratch the former's surface - too good and sweet by half. It often seems that way in Victorian fiction: it's the flawed, or worse, characters who are best developed, whilst the 'goodies' (especially the women) are so often left to be mildly uninteresting or at best over-sentimentalused. One of the strongest characters in this book is Grandcourt - the portrayal of his subjugation of Gwendolyn is brilliantly delineated, a classic case of isolation abuse, exploiting to the full all the advantages of the husband in Victorian society - a fair amount left to be read between the lines. Daniel Deronda was not an easy read, but it was gripping. I initially found myself having to plan to read a set number of pages each day to ensure I finished the book in time. In the event, as the book progressed, I didn't need to worry with that, as I found momentum building up. There were one or two sections where I found myself gliding over some of the more detailed discussion, especially on philosophical or religious topics, but on the whole I actually found myself hanging on to the words. With so much to discuss (I've barely scratched the surface above!) it'll make for a good evening. (And why is it, whenever I try to write a review of a half decent book, I really struggle to make sense? These reviews never turn out the way I envisage them, and I never seem to be able to write coherently about all the issues and questions these books raise).
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