Review: Taken by Dinuka McKenzie

 

Title: Taken {Detective Kate Miles #2}

Author: Dinuka McKenzie

Published: 1st February 2023, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read 2023 courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Taken is the second thrilling book to feature Detective Sergeant Kathryn Miles who was introduced in Dinuka McKenzie’s bestselling debut, Torrent.

Picking up several months after the dramatic final scenes of the previous book, Kate has just returned to work following maternity leave and is eager to return to active duty. A domestic disturbance call gives Kate the opportunity she needs to prove herself ready, and results in her being assigned as co-lead detective in an infant abduction.

Four month old Sienna Ricci, her mother, Ellisa reports, was taken from her home while she showered. As the team investigates, Kate’s partner becomes convinced the baby’s father, Aaron Ricci, is responsible for the abduction and she is taken off the case, even though Kate believes she has a viable alternative suspect in Jason Veliu, a violent man Kate recently had cause to arrest.

With a child’s well-being at stake, the tension is high in Taken. The plot is well thought out with several red herrings, though I found it relatively easy to discern who was responsible early on. The story has good momentum and there is action too as Kate finds herself risking her life in two separate confrontations with desperate people. Sensitive readers should be aware that domestic violence, adultery and postnatal depression are among the issues that are raised in the crimes Kate is investigating.

Kate is under a lot of personal pressure in Taken. While struggling with the effects of PTSD, she is also trying to find a balance between the needs of her husband and children, and the demands of her career. On top of this, the media have picked up on a story involving her father’s late partner’s business activity which could implicate them both in a corruption scandal, amplifying her concerns about the family’s finances. Determined not to be seen as lacking, Kate doesn’t always make sensible decisions, but she acts for the right reason.

Suspenseful, fast paced and gripping, Taken is an excellent read, perfect for fans of Australian crime fiction from authors such as Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Emma Viskic.

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Review: Love to Loathe You by Ali Hazelwood

 

Title: Love to Loathe You {The STEMinist novellas #1-3}

Author: Ali Hazelwood

Published: 10th January 2023, Sphere

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Having read great things about Ali Hazelwood’s debut, The Love Hypothesis, and her sophomore novel, Love on the Brain, I couldn’t resist the lure of Love to Loathe You, a collection of three novella’s, which have previously been published separately. Each novella works as a standalone, however they are linked in that they each feature one of three best friends, Mara, Sadie and Hannah, who are in regular contact across all of the story’s .

In Under One Roof, Mara, an environmental engineer who has just landed her dream job at the Environmental Protective Agency, inherits half ownership in a Washington DC house from her late mentor, and learns she’ll be sharing it with her mentor’s great nephew, a lawyer for an oil company. Liam isn’t pleased to be sharing his space with a stranger, and the two try to stay out of each other’s way, but their forced proximity soon breaks down the walls between them. Probably my favourite of the three novellas, I particularly enjoyed the well-paced build up of romantic tension between Mara and Liam.

Miscommunication is at the root of the conflict between civil engineer Sadie, and Erik, a partner in a large rival firm, in Stuck With You. The couple meet at a nearby cafe and enjoy a long night together, leaving Sadie excited for future possibilities, until she is told Erik’s firm has poached the important client she had high hopes of signing. Three weeks later the two are trapped in an elevator together and Sadie is ready to tell him exactly what she thinks of him. I liked the dual timeline structure of this story, and the respect Erik showed for Sadie, though I think a steamy elevator scene would have been the icing on the cake.

Below Zero is a second-chance romance featuring Hannah, an ambitious aerospace engineer, and Ian, her boss at NASA. When Hannah learns that her proposed project has been rejected by Ian, despite widespread support from her colleagues, Hannah suspects Ian’s motive is revenge, but when she is left stranded in a crevasse in the Arctic it’s Ian who rescues her, despite the dangers. By sheer coincidence, Bonnie Tyler’s song ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ started playing as I was reading this, and it’s the perfect anthem for this novella (especially the last verse). Hannah, whose cynicism hides her poor self esteem, is the prickliest of the three friends, and I couldn’t help but root for her to take a chance.

Though each novella has its own epilogue, the Bonus Chapter included in Love to Loathe You, which contains a few pages from each of the men’s point of view at a future date, is just that, a charming bonus that I appreciated.

Witty, fun and heated (the sex is reasonably explicit), Love to Loathe You proved to be an excellent escapist read for me, Hazelwood has a new fan and I’m looking forward to reading Love, Theoretically which will be released later this year.

++++++++

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Review: Headland by John Byrnes

 

Title: Headland

Author: John Byrnes

Published: 10th January 2023, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Is pulp rural noir fiction a thing? If not perhaps Headland by Australian author John Byrnes is the first of its kind. Dark, lurid, gritty and violent, this debut novel includes elements of both crime fiction subgenres, if you don’t know what to expect, Headland is likely to shock.

Detective Senior Constable Craig Watson is the novel’s compromised protagonist, a drug addict whose poor performance has seen him exiled to a small coastal town hours from Sydney, to relieve a colleague. He’s not a character that endears himself to anyone, seemingly corrupted by his habit, and the slow revelation of a twisted relationship that haunts him, even a shred of redemption seems impossible, at least at the outset.

It’s already been raining for days when Craig arrives in Gloster, but he isn’t given any time to settle in. The town is on flood watch, there’s a missing teenage girl who could be a runaway or the victim of a kidnapping, a recent fatal accident that’s declared not to be an accident, and an assault on a councillor. Even high, Craig quickly recognises that something is off in Gloster, including the behaviour of his station boss, Sergeant Thomas Philby, and begins to unravel a conspiracy of corruption, fraud, sexual exploitation and murder.

The action in the story really gets underway after the river breaks it banks, and Craig, along with his colleagues Constables Ellie Cameron and Larissa Brookes, find they have been left behind in the evacuation. They think they are alone until Ellie vanishes leaving behind a trail of blood, and it becomes clear they are trapped with a desperate killer. The momentum then rarely lets up with daring rescues, furious gun battles, and brutal confrontations fraught with tension. The driving rain creates a close atmosphere, the town Byrnes describes is laid out much like my own, and I almost expected to look up from the book’s pages to see the streets flooding (as they do once or twice a year).

Be aware however, there are several confronting, and even affronting, characters and scenes in Headland. Few in the cast come off well, particularly those who we are usually predisposed to trust, and there are quite graphic descriptions of misogyny, abuse, violence, sex, and sexual assault, all of which is expected from the pulp genre.

Headland may not appeal to everyone but I found it aggressive, fast paced and gripping, I couldn’t put it down.

++++++++

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Review: The One and Only Dolly Jamieson by Lisa Ireland

Title: The One and Only Dolly Jamieson

Author: Lisa Ireland

Published: 10th January 2023, Michael Joseph

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Penguin Books Australia

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My Thoughts:

The One and Only Dolly Jamieson is a charming and uplifting novel from Australian author Lisa Ireland.

Once a sought after Broadway/West End performer and television star, seventy-eight year old Dolly Jamieson spends her days in a London library, and her nights in a stranger’s rarely used shed. There’s little danger of her being recognised as no one wishes to look too closely at the homeless, in fact most people choose to ignore her. Dolly tries not to take offence, she knows she doesn’t look, or smell, her best but she misses being seen.

When Jane Leveson stumbles into the library, looking lost and on the verge of tears, Dolly feels compelled to reach out and offer the woman comfort. Jane sees past Dolly’s worn coat and unkempt hair and their conversation sparks a connection that grows as Jane offers to help Dolly turn her scribbled notes into a memoir.

With a dual timeline that shifts smoothly between the past and present, we learn how Dolly, born Margie Ferguson in Geelong, Victoria, overcame hardship and tragedy in her determination to become a star, and the subsequent trajectory of her life. Despite the ills that have befallen her, and the mistakes she has made, Dolly is a delightful character, and admire her optimism.

As she and Jane work together to tell Dolly’s story Ireland reveals more about what is troubling Jane. Dolly’s gentle sympathy and nonjudgmental attitude is a balm to Jane who is struggling under the weight of her own regrets. Ireland stunned me with the reveal of Jane’s whole story, it a was very unexpected and hit hard.

Ireland addresses a number of sensitive issues in the novel including adoption and suicide, but particularly highlights the shocking increase in homelessness amongst women aged 65 and over, and includes a note that outlines the extent of the problem.

Written with warmth, tenderness and humour, The One and Only Dolly Jamieson is a really lovely read.

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Review: The Drift by C.J. Tudor

 

Title: The Drift

Author: C.J. Tudor

Published: 19th January 2023, Michael Joseph

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy PenguinUK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

I read The Drift by C.J. Tudor on a 30 degree day – that’s 30° Celsius, so around 86F, but I was quickly chilled to the core.

“At the start, there is simply relief at being alive.”

Hannah slowly regains consciousness to discover the bus she was travelling in, carrying a dozen or so students from Invicta Academy heading to The Retreat, has careered off the road and rolled part way down a mountainside in the middle of a blizzard. Hannah is trapped in the mangled bus with a handful of survivors, the bus driver is missing, and one of the dead shows signs of a deadly infection.

“As ever in this life, if you wanted to be saved, you had to do it yourself.”

The last thing Meg, an ex police officer and recovering drug addict, remembers is having breakfast in her hotel room, so she’s disoriented when she wakes in a stalled cable car as a snow storm rages outside. She’s not alone, there are four others stirring, all volunteers headed for The Retreat, and the body of a man she once knew.

“You’re either a good guy or you’re a survivor, someone had once told him. The earth is full of dead good guys.”

It’s Carter’s turn to ski down the mountain to stock up on provisions for the residents of The Retreat, a chore he hates given the threat of what lurks in the woods outside of the electric wire fence. On his return he finds the chalet is dark, Julia is dead and Nate is badly injured, but worse, the basement locks have been released.

In a post apocalyptic setting amid falling snow, three storylines eventually converge in an unexpected way in The Drift, telling a story of loss and hope, betrayal and compassion, death and survival.

Suspense wars with horror as each claustrophobic situation poses obvious and hidden dangers to the characters. The dynamics of each group are tense, confused and fascinating. Everyone is suspect, and has an agenda of some kind, assumptions are a mistake. The body count is high.

The complexity of the overarching plot is impressive. Each story thread exposes a new piece of information that often answers the questions others raise, and adds to our understanding of their world, one ravaged by a deadly uncontrollable virus, killing millions. One mystery will appear to resolve, only for another to be triggered. There is a cascade of surprises and shocks with the pacing well balanced between all three storylines.

With a compelling blend of horror and mystery, The Drift is an atmospheric, frightening, and clever novel.

++++++++

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Review: Saha by Cho Nam-Joo

 

Title: Saha

Author: Cho Nam-Joo {Translated by Jamie Chang}

Published: 30th November 2022, Scribner

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

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My Thoughts:

Saha is a disquieting dystopian story from Korean author Cho Nam-Joo that explores oppression, privilege, humanity and suffering.

Saha Estate, a decaying block of housing units, is home to a disenfranchised assortment of residents, ‘nobodies’, who eke out an existence on the fringes of an independent, corporate controlled country, ruled by an anonymous board known only as The Council of Ministers, and referred to as ‘Town’.

The narrative begins with Jin-Kyung, a young woman whose younger brother, Do-kyung, survives a suicide pact with his high status girlfriend only to be accused of murdering her.  When he disappears, Jin-Kyung’s anger at yet another injustice festers, and compounds, until she gathers her courage to confront its architects.

A series of character vignettes follows, illustrating the lives of past and current Saha outcasts including Do-kyung and his girlfriend Su, the building’s caretaker simply called “Old man”, long-time resident, Granny Konnim, and her unusual adopted granddaughter, Woomi. I was quite caught up in these heartbreaking tales of bad luck, prejudice, violence and desperation. To me each sketch highlights the ways in which somebody can become nobody, sometimes through no fault of their own.

Though there is death and secrets in Saha, I would not label it as a mystery. The focus of Saha is on exploring themes that echo current social issues, including the inequity of rampant capitalism, the effects of the pandemic, and the struggle of disenfranchised populations, especially immigrants.

Despite some interesting elements, I found Saha to be a generally grim, bleak story. Though only a short novel it is not a quick read, and offered what I felt was little payoff.

++++++++

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Review: Just Murdered by Katherine Kovacic

 

Title: Just Murdered {Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries #1}

Author: Katherine Kovacic

Published: 10th January, Poisoned Pen Press

Status: Read January courtesy Poisoned Pen Press/Netgalley

++++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

A screen to book adaption by Katherine Kovacic of the first episode of the Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries television series (written by Deb Cox and created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger), which itself was inspired by Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the TV series, which is based on the Phryne Fisher mystery books by Kerry Greenwood, Just Murdered is a delightful murder mystery set during the 1960’s in Victoria Australia introducing Ms Peregrine Fisher, the niece of Miss Phryne Fisher.

“She had never been one to play by the rules—at least, not unless they suited her.”

When Peregrine Fisher discovers an oft forwarded letter addressed to her late mother that requests a meeting with regards to an inheritance, her first instinct is to dismiss it as a joke, but at a loose end, having been fired that same day from her position in a hairdressing salon, Peregrine decides to accept the invitation. Upon her rather dramatic arrival at The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes, Peregrine is informed that her mother’s estranged half sister, Phryne Fisher, is missing in Papua New Guinea, presumed dead, and Peregrine is her heir.

“I’ve tried hard all my life to be someone or belong somewhere…”

The murder of a young model at Blair’s Emporium, for which one of the Adventuresses is under suspicion, is just the opportunity Peregrine needs to prove herself to The Adventuresses’ Club of the Antipodes. She has big shoes to fill but it’s soon evident that though Peregrine may lack the sophistication of her aunt, she is just as bold, clever and resourceful. A genuine delight, I love her sassy attitude. Much like her aunt Peregrine refuses to be told who she is and what she is capable of, especially by men.

“Now I just have to convince Birdie and the rest of the Adventuresses that I can do my aunt’s old job. I mean, it’s not really that hard, is it?”

I enjoyed the well plotted mystery for which there several suspects. Another murder increases the stakes, especially for Peregrine, who then goes undercover to expose to the truth, despite being forcefully warned off by Chief Inspector Sparrow and Detective James Steed of Central Police.

The writing is a great reflection of the television episode, and I thought Kovacic translated the characters and events well to the page. She captures the entertaining balance of humour and tension that is the appeal of this series. The settings are well rendered, and the sense of time and place are distinct.

I expect fans of the original Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries will enjoy this spin off as I have. You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 of Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries on Acorn TV in several countries, but I would welcome continuing print instalments of this series.

++++++++

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Review: In the Blink of an Eye by Jo Callaghan

 

Title: In the Blink of an Eye

Author: Jo Callaghan

Published: 10th January 2023, Simon & Schuster Au

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia

++++++++

My Thoughts:

Crime fiction with a speculative twist, In the Blink of an Eye is an impressive debut from British author, Jo Callaghan.

DSC Kat Frank, newly returned from bereavement leave, is unhappy when her boss directs her to lead a pilot program to test the suitability of using an AIDE (Artificially Intelligent Detective Entity) in a police investigation. Professor Okonedo, determined to better the operation of the force, asserts that the AIDE is not only capable of collating and analysing vast amounts of data in a fraction of the time required by a human, but has been programmed to filter out the bias and prejudice that can taint investigations. Kat doesn’t believe algorithms can truly account for the vagaries of humankind, or replace the experience and instincts she, like most good police officers, often rely on.

With input from her small handpicked team, consisting of DI Ryan Hassan and DS Debbie Browne, along with AIDE Lock, who presents as a lifelike hologram with the default appearance is as a fairly nondescript 6ft tall white male, and Professor Okonedo as an observer, Kat selects two missing person cold cases for them to review. Unexpectedly the investigation’s into the current whereabouts of university student Tyrone Walters and wanna be actor Will Robinson converge when the team discovers a sinister link in their disappearances.

Essentially In the Blink of an Eye is a police procedural, Kat and her squad conduct interviews, investigate clues and gather evidence to explain the fate of the missing men. Callaghan develops a solid mystery and I thought it played out well. There’s plenty of tension, enhanced by the anonymous perspective of a young man suffering at the hands of shadowy figures, and effective twists in the plot.

The speculative elements of the novel are thought-provoking. The conflict inherent in Kat and Lock’s different approaches to investigation, and how each affects the case, is fascinating, with the strengths and weaknesses of both methods fairly illustrated. Lock’s superior ability to gather and analyse information is undeniable but Kat proves that empathy, discretion, and an understanding of nuance are also valuable investigative tools.

I really enjoyed the unique dynamics of Kat and Lock’s partnership. Kat is a likeable lead character. As a decorated police officer, with 25 years of experience in the force, Kat is a dedicated investigator who has confidence in her abilities, but she is a little emotionally fragile given the recent death of her husband, caused in part by of a misdiagnosis by an AI, which fuels her antagonistic attitude towards the AIDE. Kat is also a mother, with her teenage son on the cusp of relocating to begin university, and as such there are aspects of the cases that she strongly relates to. It’s surprisingly difficult to refrain from ascribing human motivations and emotions to AIDE Lock. Solely driven by statistics and logic, though capable of deep learning that gives it the ability to adjust its behaviours, it nevertheless has a distinct character which I really grew to like.

With its clever, provocative premise and appealing, complex characters, In the Blink of an Eye is a compelling novel, and I believe only the first of what promises to be a great series.

++++++++

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Review: The Knighton Women’s Compendium by Denise Picton

 

Title: The Knighton Women’s Compendium

Author: Denise Picton

Published: 4th January 2023, Ultimo Press

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Ultimo Press

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My Thoughts:

“Every generation of women has to work out how to think and act in the world.”

The Knighton Women’s Compendium is a heartwarming novel about family, feminism and personal fulfilment from Australian author Denise Picton.

Told largely from the perspective of twelve year old Holly, The Knighton Women’s Compendium is set in Clare Valley, South Australia in 1982. Here, Holly lives in Wakefield Hall, a large, somewhat dilapidated country house with her ‘Greaty’ (Dorothy), her Gran (Flora), and her mother, Lucy. The arrangement generally suits the older three generations of widowed women, Flora earns just enough to allow them to keep body and soul together, and as Lucy is often ill with a condition that has yet to be diagnosed, Greaty and Gran help to take care of Holly. Holly dreams of becoming a famous dancer and befriending her idol, Olivia Newton John, so when she learns of a dance marathon to be held in Adelaide she persuades her family to let her enter. If Holly wins, the money will pay for the braces she needs, but her goal is to be noticed and become a star.

Rather unexpectedly, Holly’s entry into the marathon triggers change amongst her family which threatens to divide them. I really enjoyed the dynamics between the women, their love for one another is evident but they don’t always see eye to eye, leading to plenty of tension. As Holly focuses on winning the competition, Lucy, a romantic, is torn between two very different suitors; Flora, who loves a cause, begins organising a social justice campaign that could derail the marathon much to Holly’s horror; and Dorothy, the keeper of the The (Knighton) Women’s Annual, is worried she hasn’t done enough to ensure her kin’s happiness.

Several quirky supporting characters add charm to the narrative, including Holly’s best friend Barry, who has a unique way with words, and a postman who randomly gets attached to pieces of mail he is supposed to deliver. The Knighton women have their enemies too, namely a selfish, spurned suitor and a judgemental bigot, both of whom attempt to sabotage the marathon, as well as a cheeky ostentation of peacocks.

The Knighton Women’s Compendium is quite a busy story, not only is there quite a large cast, Picton touches on a number of social issues. I like the generational angle messages the author about being true to yourself and taking each day as it comes. I do think extracts of Greaty’s entries to the Annual may have enhanced the narrative.

With its warmth, wit and wisdom, The Knighton Women’s Compendium is an engaging read, with generational appeal.

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Review: Lockdown by Janna Thompson

 

Title: Lockdown

Author: Janna Thompson

Published: 1st October 2022, Clan Destine Press

Status: Read January 2023 courtesy Clan Destine Press

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My Thoughts:

 

“I imagined recruiting a gang of old women to be undercover agents.  What would they be called: the Grey Ghosts, the White Spectres, the Senior Sleuths or the Killer Crones? I decided that final name wouldn’t be right. My gang would not commit murder; the Grey Ghosts would be a force for good.”

Professor Janna Thompson, one of Australia’s most eminent philosophers with expertise in environmental ethics, feminism and global justice, who published many scholarly articles and books during her career, was also a life long crime fiction fan. Lockdown has been published posthumously after her untimely death in mid 2022.

Set in Melbourne in early 2020, Lockdown is an entertaining mystery told from the alternating perspectives of unassuming retired philosophy lecturer Meg Thorne, and Jenny Mueller, a woman confined to a bed in a nursing home.

Meg is the founding member of the Grey Ghosts, a group of three women who have created their own detective agency. As women of a certain age, Meg, Lila Gatti and Dorothy Arden have learnt they are often overlooked or ignored in most situations and as such are excellent at subterfuge. Having already successfully assisted in exposing a fraudster, the women are confident they can help when they are asked to investigate Sunnyvale Residential and Care Home, which houses a mix of permanent and temporary residents, by a son worried about his mother, Sara Brighouse.

As the eldest and frailest of the group, Meg is the obvious choice to enter the nursing home, though she’s reluctant. She has traumatic memories of her own mother’s time in such an institution but with reassurance from her friends, she allows herself to be convinced. Feigning a recent fall and the need for a recovery period, Meg moves in with high hopes she can resolve the case quickly but Sara, who appears frightened, refuses to talk.

Meanwhile Jenny, who is kept heavily sedated and confined to a bed in the medical ward, desperately wants to talk with her best friend, Sara. As she slips in and out of awareness she recalls disturbing memories from her childhood as well as happier times shared with Sara.

As Meg tries to find the source of Sara’s distress, several possible causes come to light, some of these prove to be red herrings, while others overlap with Meg’s main objective. Thompson’s plotting is thoughtful and I enjoyed the unraveling of the mystery. The tension in the novel heightens considerably as Meg, on the cusp of solving the mystery, is trapped in the Home when the Coronavirus pandemic begins, and someone is determined she won’t leave alive.

Thompson touches on a number of serious themes in Lockdown including ageism, cancer, sexual assault, elder abuse, addiction, and of course the threat posed by the pandemic. Still the tone is reasonably light and there are flashes of humour, even a spark of romance (though Meg denies it).

An engaging mystery, Lockdown is another fine legacy Janna Thompson has gifted the world.

++++++++

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