Review: Mad About You by Mhairi McFarlane

 

Title: Mad About You

Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Published: 14th April 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: April 2022 courtesy HarperCollins UK/ Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

 

Mhairi McFarlane’s publisher seems determined to market her books as romantic comedy’s, even when they are not. Sure, Mad About You includes humour and romance, but I feel this is a disingenuous description of the book.

In fact the romance, that comes about after thirty-four year old Harriet Hatley ends a relationship with her boyfriend of two years, Jon, and needs somewhere else to live in Mad About You, feels almost incidental. The meat of the plot revolves around Harriet’s toxic history with a previous long term boyfriend, Scott.

During their four years together, Harriet was a victim of psychological and emotional abuse, Scott’s charming public veneer belying a pattern of coercive control within their relationship. She’s forced to confront that legacy, firstly when she realises, with some help from her best friend Lorna, that Jon also employed manipulative tactics during their liaison, and secondly when Harriet learns through a chance encounter that Scott is getting married, and she reaches out to his fiancée.

As part of that journey, Harriet must also come to terms with the loss of her parents as a child, a friend’s betrayal, and the sabotage of her business, so there is a lot of strong emotion in play which I think McFarlane handles sensitively. There are realistic consequences for decisions, and Harriet’s self reflections feel honest.

Though I didn’t find the romance to be as convincing as I’ve come to expect from the author, it’s enough to satisfy the conventions of the genre with its mild ‘enemies to lovers’ trope. Harriet gets her happy ending, but more importantly she is finally happy within herself, having come to terms with her past.

If you are looking for a light, breezy romcom, you won’t find it with Mad About You, but you will discover a thoughtful and engaging read.

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Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

 

Title: Lessons in Chemistry

Author: Bonnie Garmus

Published: 5th April 2022, Doubleday

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy Doubleday/Netgalley UK

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My Thoughts:

 

Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant scientist, but as a woman in the mid 20th century she struggles to be taken seriously. Denied the opportunity for a PhD after stabbing her professor with a pencil, she takes a job as a research assistant at the Hastings Research Institute. Refusing to fetch coffee for her colleagues, or flirt with her boss, Elizabeth finds her career stalled, until an unexpected meeting with the institute’s wonder boy, Calvin Evans.

“When it came to equality, 1952 was a real disappointment.”

Shifting between past and present, Lessons in Chemistry is a lively and thought-provoking story of ambition, love, motherhood, and science, featuring a heroine with an empowering message for women, still relevant today.

“Once a research chemist, Elizabeth Zott was a woman with flawless skin and an unmistakable demeanor of someone who was not average and never would be.”

It’s clear, though never confirmed, that Elizabeth is on the autism spectrum, candid and artless, she’s frustrated by the social conventions that attempt to constrain her both personally and professionally. I found it easy to empathise with her, given the struggle for equality in both spheres lingers, and cheered her refusal to capitulate to expectations.

“Cooking is chemistry….And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself—starts here.”

Though repeatedly thwarted in her career ambitions, largely by men determined to either subjugate or exploit her, Elizabeth will not be denied. Accepting the role as a hostess of an afternoon television cooking show is a rare compromise for the sake of practically, but Elizabeth doesn’t have it in her to adhere to convention, much to the dismay and ire of her immediate boss, and his boss. That her unusual approach strikes a chord with her audience of housewives surprises everyone, except Elizabeth.

“Imagine if all men took women seriously.”

Though Garmus explores a range of serious issues that disproportionately affect women such as workplace harassment, sexual assault, domestic violence, and gender discrimination, her wry humour offsets many of the story’s painful moments. It helps too, that few of the men who treat Elizabeth badly remain unpunished.

“Family is far more than biology.”

I loved the found family Elizabeth attracts. Her relationship with Calvin is a charming surprise, a true connection of soulmates. Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, is a delight, as is the equally precocious family dog, Six-Thirty. I quickly warmed to Elizabeth’s across-the-way neighbour, Harriet, her obstetrician and fellow rower, Dr Mason, her stressed out show boss, Walter Pine, and even the disillusioned Reverend Wakely.

“Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

Lessons in Chemistry is witty, provocative, poignant and uplifting story of a woman who refuses to be anything other than who she is.

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Review: Dinner with the Schnabels by Toni Jordan

 

Title: Dinner With the Schnabels

Author: Toni Jordan

Published: 30th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read April courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

“Dinner with the Schnabels. It could be the title of a horror movie.”

A contemporary domestic drama, Dinner With the Schnabels is a novel about love, marriage and family from Australian author Toni Jordan.

Simon Larsen is an architect, or rather he was. Unemployed since the pandemic bankrupted his business, he’s now a reluctant house husband of sorts in the cramped 2 bedroom flat he and his family of four were forced to move into after also losing their home. With his beloved wife, Tansy (née Schnabel), working as a real estate agent to support their family, Simon feels useless and so when she asks that he landscapes a friends back yard in preparation for her estranged father’s memorial in a week, Simon is determined to prove himself capable.

What follows is a comedy of errors of a sort as Simon is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to work on the project by a range of situations including an unexpected houseguest, a tardy tradie, an errant sock and an enterprising 8 year old. Yet at its heart this is a story about errant priorities and the quest for happiness.

Earnest and well-intentioned, if generally also a bit neurotic and hapless, Simon is a surprisingly endearing character. His perspective is both amusing, and thought-provoking, revealing a man bewildered by the unexpected route his life has taken, and floundering to find a new direction. As Simon attempts to navigate the gauntlet of everyday tribulations, his intimidating in-laws, particularly fractious matriarch Gloria, and his own emotional inertia, he’s challenged by some uncomfortable and surprising insights.

Witty, perceptive and moving, Dinner With the Schnabels is a well-written, entertaining read.

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Review: The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

 

Title: The Diamond Eye

Author: Kate Quinn

Published: 29th March 2022, William Morrow

Status: Read April 2022 courtesy William Morrow /Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the remarkable story of World War II Russian sniper known as ‘Lady Death’, The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn is a fascinating novel of historical fiction.

On the same day that the Germans invade Russia, Mila Pavlichenko (Lyudmila Mikhailovna), a 24 year old PhD student working at the Odessa public library as a senior research assistant enlists in the army. Goaded into completing an Advanced Markmanship course several years earlier by her husband, from whom she’s been separated for several years, she feels compelled to contribute to the protection of her young son, Slavka, who remains in the care of his grandparents. Sent to the Russian front, Mila quickly proves skilled with a rifle, and over the course of the next year, earns the nickname ‘Lady Death’ as a sniper credited with 309 ‘official’ kills of Nazi soldiers.

Unfolding over two timelines, much of the story moves between Mila’s experiences on the frontline, and her time in Washington, 18 months later.

Though The Diamond Eye is a fictionalised account of Mila’s life, in her Author’s Note Quinn explains much of the detail is factual – from Mila’s ‘shotgun’ wedding at age fifteen after being seduced by a much older man, to the friendship she formed with (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Mila’s tour of the United States. Drawing from Mila’s official memoir, and other records, Quinn has crafted a rich portrait of the woman that exists beyond the legend of ‘Lady Death’.

I think Quinn ably communicated the chaos and stress of the frontline from Mila’s unique perspective, both as a woman and a sniper. I was engrossed by Mila’s experiences, admiring of her bravery and her commitment to her role, one I could never imagine taking on. There is an extra layer of poignancy too that Quinn did not foresee, given the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine.

I enjoyed the development of Mila’s relationship with her sniper partner, Kostia, and with the lieutenant, Lyonya, with whom she had an ill-fated romance on the frontlines.   Though Quinn has taken some liberties, both men are based on real people, as are most of the characters she encounters, their names taken from historical record, including her comrades in arms, and her fellow Soviet delegates.

It was after Mila’s fourth near-fatal injury, that she was sent to Washington DC, representing the Soviet Union at an international student conference hosted by (former) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, tasked with convincing the President to provide assistance to Russia. Despite her reluctance to participate, Mila proved to be a capable, if somewhat controversial, advocate (footage of the real Mila speaking with the US press can be seen on YouTube). It’s in this timeline that Quinn strays most notably from history, concocting an assassin who stalks Mila, planning to frame her for the murder of FDR. To be honest I’m not sure it was necessary, though it does add another level of drama and tension, and speaks to the political landscape of the time.

The Diamond Eye is a compelling narrative, enriched by the blending of fact and fiction, and a reminder of the human face of war.

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Review: Her Fierce Creatures by Maria Lewis

 

Title: Her Fierce Creatures {Supernatural Sisters #8}

Author: Maria Lewis

Published: 8th March 2022, Hachette Australia

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Her Fierce Creatures is the breathtaking conclusion of Maria Lewis’s award-winning Supernatural Sisters urban fantasy series.

Since my very late introduction to this series with The Rose Daughter, I’ve tracked down the earlier instalments but regrettably not had the time to read them, so I was hesitant to jump into the finale. I was relieved to find my lack of familiarity with the series overall proved not to be a hindrance, and I quickly found myself absorbed in Her Fierce Creatures.

After centuries of oppression and increasing cruelty by the Trieze, the ruling class of the supernatural that live hidden among modern society, the time has come to revolt. The balance of power hinges on the safe delivery of banshee Sadie Burke’s triplets, and the best way to protect them is to disrupt and divide the forces of the Praetorian Guard, uniting races and clans in the fight.

Supernatural emissaries from all over the world gather in the Australian dessert to plan their rebellion. Vankila, the Scottish underground prison from which sprite Dreckly Jones is the only one to have ever escaped, is a priority target and they devise a risky plan in which werewolf Tommi Grayson gets herself arrested, to stage a break out, rather than a break in.

There’s lots of fast paced, high tension action as Tommi enacts the plan with plenty of help, while groups of volunteers simultaneously attack other Trieze facilities around the world. Dreckly Jones and Corvossier ‘Casper’ von Klitzing, also play major roles in the battle. The clashes are dangerous and violent, and there are losses that will weigh heavily on them all.

Meanwhile Sadie is hidden from the Trieze in a remote New Zealand stronghold, guarded by her family and Tommi’s Māori werewolf relatives. Sadie is struggling with both the physical and emotional pressures of her pregnancy, and her anxiety grows after a vision suggests that the Trieze will come for her. Werewolf Simon is tasked as Sadie’s personal guard, and I was surprised and delighted by the heartwarming romance that developed between the two.

Her Fierce Creatures is a must read for fans of the series, those familiar with the Supernatural Sisters will appreciate the elements of closure for the characters they’ve grown to know and love, and the ending is as dramatic and climatic as could be hoped for.

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Review: The Recovery Agent by Janet Evanovich

 

Title: The Recovery Agent {Gabriela Rose #1}

Author: Janet Evanovich

Published: 22nd March 2022, Atria Books

Status: Read March 2022, Atria/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

As a long time fan of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to read The Recovery Agent, the first book in a new series featuring Insurance Fraud Investigator Gabriela Rose.

Gabriela Rose, who made her debut in Fortune and Glory (book #27 of the Stephanie Plum series) makes a living by recovering assets and items for individuals or companies, but her latest case is personal. With her hometown of Scoon on the verge of collapse after damage wreaked by Category 4 storm, Gabriela’s grandmother Fanny believes that all their problems can be solved if Gabriela finds the lost Treasure of Lima, or more specifically The Seal of Solomon.

I wanted to love The Recovery Agent, but unfortunately I didn’t. I’m not exactly sure where the failure lies though.

There is plenty of entertaining adventure and action as Gabriela follows a trail into the South American jungle to the territory of the God of Death, guided by a drug dealer, and in the company of her ex-husband. Her search pits her against El Dragon,  a drug dealer and a fanatical disciple of Supay, the God of Death, who also wants the Seal of Solomon, which is purported to allow the bearer to raise and enslave the dead. There are stand-offs and gun battles, explosions and collisions. Gabriela is variously nearly drowned, tasered, shot and drugged but refuses to give up.

I’d describe Gabriela as a less sophisticated version of Lara Croft. She’s definitely tough, smart and resourceful, an expert in martial arts and weapons, I just can’t quite imagine how a girl from a fishing village who married her childhood sweetheart became such a bad-ass though. I wasn’t entirely convinced of the chemistry between Gabriela and her ex-husband, Rafer either. Lust, sure, there are regular references to how ‘hot’ Rafer is, and the pair have a long history, but i didn’t really feel the tension between them.

There is plenty of humour in The Recovery Agent. Gabriela and Rafer banter their entire way through the book, and Evanovich, as always, has a great sense of comic timing.

While all the elements of a story I enjoy seem to be there, I still feel there is something lacking overall, it’s like an itch I can’t quite reach. I’d be willing to give the sequel a shot though, in the hopes of recovery.

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Review: The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

 

Title: The Language of Food

Author: Annabel Abbs

Published: 2nd March 2022, Simon & Schuster Australia 

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

Inspired by the little that is known of the life of poet, and pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton, and her assistant, Ann Kirby, The Language of Food (also published under the title Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen) is the third novel from British author, Annabel Abbs.

“But you cannot cook, Eliza. You have never cooked. Besides, ladies do not cook.”

The rejection of Eliza Acton’s second book of poetry by a publisher who suggests she writes a gothic romance or recipe book instead, coincides with her father’s abrupt bankruptcy, leaving she and her mother to take charge of a boardinghouse for wealthy visitors to Tunbridge Wells in order to support themselves. Despite rarely ever having even set foot in a kitchen, and her mother’s objections, Eliza volunteers to take on the role of cook, reasoning it’s an opportunity to save money, and accept the publisher’s commission to write a recipe book.

The sole carer for her mentally ill mother and one legged, alcoholic father, seventeen year old Ann Kirby is both apprehensive and excited when the local Vicar Mr Thorpe arranges a position for her as underhousemaid for Eliza at the boardinghouse. Unused to service, Ann has no idea what to expect but she soon proves herself invaluable to Eliza as she proves to have an instinct for flavours, and they work to develop the cookbook together.

“Why should the culinary arts not include poetry? Why should a recipe book not be a thing of beauty?”

Told through the alternating perspectives of the two women, The Language of Food draws on fact and imagination as Eliza and Ann develop what will eventually be “the greatest British cookbook of all time”, published in 1845 as ‘Modern Cookery, in All Its Branches: Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families’. It’s also a story of female friendship and fortitude, as the women, despite their different stations in life, work side by side, and a story of creativity and cooking as Eliza and Ann combine their talents for poetry and instinct for flavours.

While Abbs incorporates as much accurate information as available about Eliza in The Language of Food, Ann is almost an entirely a fictional construct. I liked Eliza as a somewhat unconventional woman for her time, and it’s pleasing she and her contribution to modern cookery have being remembered and honoured here. Ann is young and naive, and her backstory makes her a very sympathetic character. Abb’s portrayal of the partnership they develop in the kitchen is warming, though their situation precludes a truly equal relationship. I found it interesting that Abbs explained the omission of Ann as a coauthor of the book as a decision made by Ann, and have to wonder if there was any truth to that.

The bulk of the story takes place over a year so, though in reality it took Eliza and Ann ten years, from 1835 to 1845. to write their cookbook. Abbs touches on the social history of the era including the tremendous inequality between social classes, the status of women across the social spectrum, and the treatment of the mentally ill.

“I must coax the flavors from my ingredients, as a poet coaxes mood and meaning from his words. And then there is the writing itself. Like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered. Nothing stray.”

Eliza is credited as the pioneer of modern cookery books because she was the first to list ingredients separately from the methodology, and to provide precise quantities of ingredients. She could also be said to have pioneered the genre of ‘food writing’, by combining instruction with description. Foodies should enjoy Eliza’s poetic depictions of scents and tastes, though the fare of the 1800’s, which relied heavily on game and foraged foods, may sound quite unusual. A handful of Eliza’s ‘reciepts’ are printed after the Notes section at the end of the book.

The Language of Food is an engaging historical novel, and I appreciated learning about the beginnings of the modern recipe book.

+++++++++

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Review: A Family of Strangers by Fiona Lowe

 

Title: A Family of Strangers

Author: Fiona Lowe

Published: 2nd March 2022, HQ Fiction

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Harlequin Australia

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My Thoughts:

 

The sixth contemporary novel from Australian author Fiona Lowe, A Family of Strangers is an appealing story that features three women- college lecturer Addy Topic who views her return to her late parents home in Rookery Cove, Tasmania, as a temporary convenience; Stephanie Gallagher who, along with her husband, toddler son and, unexpectedly, her teen step-daughter, has relocated from Melbourne in hopes of a better work/life balance; and mother, grandmother, and recent widow Brenda Lambeck, who is reluctant to reveal to her family, especially her narrow minded daughter Courtney, that her ‘boarder’, Marilyn, is actually her lover.

Strangers to one another, the catalyst to their meeting is the reformation of the Rookery Cove Choir at the behest of Marilyn. Stephanie is excited for both the opportunity to make friends and escape the rising tensions at home, and though neither Brenda, nor Addy are initially enthusiastic about the idea for their own reasons, the camaraderie of the choir proves to be a salve for them all. That is, until the night of their first performance, when an indiscreet comment exposes secrets that trigger confrontations and self examination.

Relationships-particularly those between mothers and daughters, escape, and being true to yourself are the main themes of A Family of Strangers, represented in different ways among the characters. Each struggle to find a balance between what others want from them, and what they need for themselves, in the way that is familiar to many women.

Brenda, Addy and Stephanie are well drawn, complex characters. They make good decisions, and bad, at times I found them sympathetic, at other times frustrating, but it’s their flaws make them realistic. Representing different ages and stages of life, it’s likely the experiences of one or more characters will resonate, their thoughts or actions reflecting your own.

Lowe addresses several topical issues, and in particular the ways in which they impact on women including alcoholism, sexual assault, sexual identity, workplace harassment, misogyny, the burden of domestic ‘mental load’, work/life balance, miscarriage, and infertility. Drawing on her experience as a counsellor, the author’s portrayal of the drama and emotion surrounding these challenging issues is genuine and sensitive.

A Family of Strangers is an engaging, thoughtful and astute novel.

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Review: When We Fall by Aoife Clifford

 

Title: When We Fall

Author: Aoife Clifford

Published: 2nd March 2022, Ultimo Press

Status: Read March 2022 courtesy Ultimo Press

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My Thoughts:

 

When We Fall is an atmospheric suspense novel from Australian author Aoife Clifford.

When Alex Tillerson discovers the lower leg of a young women washed up on a beach in the small community of Merritt on Australia’s southern coast, she is both repulsed and intrigued. Identified as belonging to Maxine McFarlane, a local teacher and artist, the police chief seems too eager to declare her death a tragic accident, and Alex is perturbed by the irregularities in his investigation.

A barrister, who is visiting Merritt to convince her mother to move into an assisted living facility due to the onset of dementia, Alex feels compelled to do some investigating of her own, and learns of a connection between the dead woman and the unsolved murder of a teenage girl, Bella, a year earlier. The suggestion that a missing painting holds the answers seems credible when the woman organising a memorial art exhibition is beaten to death, but Alex refuses to be intimidated, determined to unmask a killer. Red herrings abound as Alex examines the actions of the Senior Sergeant ‘King’ Kelly, a handsome local doctor, Bella’s aggressive step-father, and the incongruous presence of a tech mogul. I was proved wrong in my early guess at the motivation and perpetrator, and clever plotting ensured I was surprised by some of the twists.

There are links to issues such as climate change, environmental activism, unemployment, addiction, forced adoption, and prejudice in When We Fell. The title of the novel relates to the story in several ways including a local museum exhibition, the experiences of Alex’s mother as a ‘fallen woman’, and Bella’s wings, a homemade affectation the girl wore everywhere which went missing on her death.

Clifford’s writing is articulate and expressive, with vivid description. The pace is taut, and the suspense is enhanced by the towns claustrophobic environs. A disused lighthouse undergoing rehabilitation looms ominously over the town symbolising the fallacy of safe harbour, and the secrets shrouded in darkness ashore.

Immersive with an intriguing, well-crafted mystery, I found When We Fall to be an engrossing read.

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Review: Impossible by Sarah Lotz

 

Title: Impossible

Author: Sarah Lotz

Published: 17th March 2022, HarperCollins UK

Read: March 2022 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

I fell in love with Impossible (also published as Impossible Us) by Sarah Lotz a sublime romance with a fantastical twist.

When Nick sends an angry email to a late-paying client that is erroneously delivered to Bee’s inbox, her witty response and his sincere apology leads to daily exchanges, that quickly shift in tone from cautious and friendly to candid and flirty. Meeting in person is the obvious next step, but though they both claim to be waiting under the clock at Euston Station they can’t seem to find one another. While Bee assumes that her best friend, Leila, is right and she’s been had, Nick realises that something strange is happening…something impossible.

Unfolding through the email exchanges and first person narratives of Nick and Bee, Impossible offers a heartfelt romance thwarted by rules of physics. I don’t want to attempt a clumsy explanation of how this happens because you deserve to be drawn into their unconventional love story, and convinced by Lotz that the impossible is possible.

This is a book that appeals directly to the romantic at heart with numerous direct and oblique references to film and literary classics such as The Lake House, You’ve Got Mail, Sliding Doors, Rebecca, and Strangers on a Train, with a little David Bowie thrown in as a bonus, but nevertheless the plot feels creative and fresh. More serious issues are touched on too though including infidelity, suicide, domestic violence, and environmental harm.

I was entertained by the witty banter between Bee and Nick, and Lotz develops their chemistry with ease. Both protagonists are older than you might expect, Bee, a fashion designer with her own small business repurposing wedding gowns, is in her early to mid thirties, while Nick, a largely unsuccessful author, is forty-five. Credibly portrayed with a mix of strengths and flaws, they are appealing characters that I found easy to invest in.

Though quite different in tone and theme to her last book, Missing Person, Lotz’s flair for original storytelling, dynamic characterisation, and expressive writing remains compelling.

Witty, poignant, surprising and absorbing, I recommend you embrace the Impossible.

+++++++

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