Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger

waistcoats-and-weaponry“Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style–with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey stowaway on a train to return their classmate Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. No one suspected what–or who–they would find aboard that suspiciously empty train. Sophronia uncovers a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos and she must decide where her loyalties lie, once and for all.”

I think that this is my favorite book in this series thus far.  Rather than continuing the same things as the previous two books, Carriger turns several ideas and characters on their heads to wonderful effect.  There are still the politics between humans and sundowners; there’s still the looming threat of the Picklemen; there are still manners to master and intrigues to plot.  What makes this book shine is that some assumptions that readers have been encouraged to hold are neatly overset.

The main way in which the author accomplishes this is by broadening the motivations of the characters.  I especially liked that a character that has previously been shown as one-dimensionally bad is given a lot more depth.  Hidden depths are revealed in other characters, giving their actions more weight.

I was also excited to see that the events of this book lay the foundation for circumstances in Carriger’s companion series, The Parasol Protectorate.  I’m pretty sure that a lot of this series’s readers came to it from the original books, and so tying them together is a wise choice.  And teen readers who enjoy these books can use them as a jumping-off point to the others.

I’m not much of a steampunk fan, but I appreciate the humor and zaniness of Carriger’s stories.  I can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

The Living by Matt de la Pena

the-living“Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he’ll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all.

But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy’s only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.

The earthquake is only the first disaster. Suddenly it’s a fight to survive for those left living.”

I picked up this book because I was offered an advance copy of the sequel and thought that the premise sounded kind of interesting.  A bit of searching in my local library, and I was heading home with a copy.  After finishing it, I can honestly say that it was worth the read, but wasn’t something that I was jumping up and down about.

I think what threw me the most is the same thing that I see other reviewers pointing out: the novel changes tones drastically more than once.  In my personal opinion, though, it’s the opening sections that throw off the rest of book.  I’m extremely glad to see a main character who is a POC, since that’s still not all that common.  What I noticed in tandem with this is that the author seemed to have felt the need to try to force the notion that Shy is a cool streetwise kid who is, if not from the wrong side of the tracks, at least within a few streets of it.  It makes those early sections sound a little odd.  However, I’ve also seen people pointing out that it’s a good representation of how a kid like him might sound, so your mileage may vary.

Once the actual disaster portion of the novel starts, that tone is abandoned altogether, which is why I said that it throws off the rest of the book–it messes with your expectations and then goes completely against them.  But this section of the book is the one that I liked the most.  It’s reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure and other purely action-oriented shipwreck stories.   Massive tidal waves, bodies thrown all over the place, scrambles for lifeboats, heroism and defeat–this part of the book has it all.

Things slow down again when Shy is trapped in a lifeboat for several days, and then the pace picks back up when he reaches an island and discovers sinister conspiracies brewing.  Underlying all of this is the threat of a mysterious disease that is decimating the mainland United States and may even be on the island.  It’s a lot to fit into one novel, and I think it would have worked better if Pena hadn’t changed the tone so many times.

There were enough enjoyable parts to the novel that I’d recommend it if you’re looking for the book equivalent of a disaster flick.  And now I’m curious to see how the sequel plays out.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

princess-of-thorns“Though she looks like a mere mortal, Princess Aurora is a fairy blessed with enhanced strength, bravery, and mercy yet cursed to destroy the free will of any male who kisses her. Disguised as a boy, she enlists the help of the handsome but also cursed Prince Niklaas to fight legions of evil and free her brother from the ogre queen who stole Aurora’s throne ten years ago.

Will Aurora triumph over evil and reach her brother before it’s too late? Can Aurora and Niklaas break the curses that will otherwise forever keep them from finding their one true love?”

You know, given the recent brouhaha around Jay’s Kickstarter campaign–the one that garnered her threatening messages for attempting to raise money to write a sequel to this book–I feel bad giving this book a not-so-positive review.  But I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t at all happy with this novel.

For one thing, I didn’t really see any plot.  The characters mostly went from one place to another with not much happening except a lot of bickering.  The places that they went didn’t stand out to me.  And even though this is billed as a fantasy retelling of Sleeping Beauty, it bears no resemblance to the original fairy tale.

That brings up a second point: a retelling should be just that.  It should take the skeleton of the original story and clothe it in new flesh so that readers meet a whole new creature in reading it.  This?… not so much.  The Sleeping Beauty character, in fact, isn’t even part of the story, since she dies at the start of the book, leaving her two children to win back her kingdom.  The daughter is named Aurora, which is the name of the fairy tale antecedent, but she has nothing in common with that character.

This leads into the third point: the characters ranged from boring to annoying.  Sad to say, Aurora is the boring one.  Although there’s no insta-chemistry with her and the male lead, she really has no personality of her own.  She wanders around, solely focused on raising an army, completely missing the fact that she has no means or support to do so.  Her counterpart, Niklaas, is a character that I’d cheerfully throttle if I ever met him in person.  He’s self-centered, egotistical, and boorish.  He believes that Aurora is her brother (she’s disguised as a boy), but he talks about his plan to marry Aurora as if she has no choice but to fall into his arms at the first opportunity.  And when he inevitably discovers the truth, instead of being mortified at all the things he said, he gets mad at Aurora for fooling him and exposing him as the aforementioned self-centered, egotistical, etc. that he is.

I’ve seen some stellar reviews for this book, so it obviously strikes a positive chord with some people.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I’ll have to recommend that you give this book a pass.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an  honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Rise of the Spider Goddess by Jim C. Hines

rise-of-the-spider-goddess“In 2006, DAW Books published Jim C. Hines’ debut novel Goblin Quest. But before Jig the goblin, before fairy tale princesses and magic librarians and spunky fire-spiders, there was Nakor the Purple, an elf who wanted nothing more than to stand around watching lovingly overdescribed sunrises with his pet owl Flame, who might actually be a falcon, depending on which chapter you’re reading.

This is Nakor’s story, written in 1995 and never before shared with the world. (For reasons that will soon be painfully clear.) Together with an angsty vampire, a pair of pixies, and a feisty young thief, Nakor must find a way to stop an Ancient Evil before she destroys the world. (Though, considering the relatively shallow worldbuilding, it’s not like there’s much to destroy…)

With more than 5000 words of bonus annotation and smart-ass commentary, this is a book that proves every author had to start somewhere, and most of the time, that place wasn’t very pretty.”

Take heart, all you aspiring writers: Jim Hines is here to show you that everyone has to start somewhere.  While there are certainly some egregious errors in this book–the bird that is sometimes an owl and sometimes a falcon is a great example–there are smaller things that you might gloss over without the author pointing them out.  Because of this, Rise of the Spider Goddess serves as a wonderful treatise on what not to do as a writer.  Hines even mentions in the forward that he doesn’t harp on every single mistake he made–some of them are there for you to find on your own, so keep a sharp eye out while reading.

Quite apart from the very real lessons shown by an author who is willing to dissect his own early work, the annotations are just plain funny.  Think Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the book geek and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what lurks in these pages.  One of my favorite bits is the ongoing “raised eyebrow count” that reaches into the double digits before the story ends.  Hines spares himself nothing, poking fun at his purple prose and terrible worldbuilding, but he does so in a way that lets you know that it’s all in good fun.

Most of all, reading this will give budding writers hope: hope that they can learn their craft with time; hope that early mistakes don’t have to define you; hope that you can even look back on those early fumblings with humor.  I’ve become fond of Hines’s writing from his Libriomancer books, but I’ve gained a lot of respect for him through this baring of his writerly soul.  It’s a fun little foray into the sometimes embarrassing evolution of literary skill.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Willful Child by Steven Erikson

willful-childThese are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’”

I hate to say it, but the more I read this novel, the more I winced.  I know that Erikson is a good author, but after reading this book, I don’t believe he has a good enough grasp of satire to succeed in that genre.  My role model for a good solid satire is Terry Pratchett, because he knows how to lampoon a subject without straying over the line into farce.  Erikson, unfortunately, is nowhere near that level of skill.

One of the big issues is that the novel tries to take itself too seriously as a satire.  Sound like a contradiction of terms?  Not really.  The author is so committed to lambasting every aspect of Star Trek that he can, he infuses absolutely every line of this book with snark.  What he doesn’t seem to understand is that really good satire relies on a lighter touch–moments of sharp wit woven into a strong story.  I can’t help but compare this novel to John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which also parodies Star Trek but does so in a much less in-your-face manner.

I also noticed a lot of choppy writing.  A good chunk of the dialogue is stilted and doesn’t bear any resemblance to real speech, much less to the kind of dialogue heard in the original Star Trek series.  Some transitions between scenes were rough and didn’t give the reader a good idea of how the characters were moving around.  And yes, we all joke about Captain Kirk being willing to sleep with anything that has a pulse and seems vaguely female, but Sawback spends way too much of the book focused on sex.  Kirk may have been a maverick, but he did try very hard to protect his crew, and Sawback has no such moral imperative.

It’s frustrating, because there were little glimmers of some truly funny stuff, little moments where the author seems to brush up against some skilled satire.  They don’t last long, though, and they’re buried in all the over-the-top writing that makes up the bulk of the novel.

This is one of those books that I had to force myself to finish.  Usually I can find something to enjoy in just about every book that I read, but this one sorely tested that ability.  Aside from a few brief flashes of wit, this book just doesn’t measure up to its promise.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Laughing At My Nightmare by Shane Burclaw

laughing-at-my-nightmare“With acerbic wit and a hilarious voice, Shane Burcaw’s Laughing at My Nightmare describes the challenges he faces as a twenty-one-year-old with spinal muscular atrophy. From awkward handshakes to having a girlfriend and everything in between, Shane handles his situation with humor and a “you-only-live-once” perspective on life. While he does talk about everyday issues that are relatable to teens, he also offers an eye-opening perspective on what it is like to have a life threatening disease.”

I was reading the children’s/young adult recap issue of Publishers Weekly when I saw the starred recommendation for this book.  I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction, just for variety, and it sounded like a funny and enlightening read.  A few minutes later, I was downloading it onto my Nook and dove right in.

Boy, they’re right when they say it’s a no-holds-barred biography.  Burcaw talks with incredible candor about aspects of living with a disability that I’m sure everyone is curious about but would never dare to ask about.  And it’s not just the bodily functions that people want to know about (although I’m sure that’s a lot of it), but the effects of his disease on his family, because how can we imagine what it would be like to have a family member so dependent on us?  I give mad props to his parents and brother, because if everything he says about them is true, they’re extraordinary people.

Quite apart from the more lurid parts (how does he use the toilet anyway?), the author does an excellent job at giving readers a sense of his condition’s progression.  It’s one thing to say “I have a disease where my muscles waste away”, but it’s quite another to realize that this means being unable to chew food without pushing your jaw up with your hand.  He also delves into the mindset of constantly adjusting to his deteriorating body.  The sections where he has difficulty breathing or weeps over the thought of his death are some of the most affecting parts of the narrative.

Burcaw talks a lot about his attempts to live as normal a life as possible, and he describes going to parties and hanging out with friends.  He has girlfriends; he goes to dances; he applies to college.  He goes through all of the normal “milestones” that teens everywhere experience.  Of course, as the book progresses, Burcaw has to take an honest look at what it means to be “normal” and adjust his thinking accordingly.  Even so, there are times that he seems to denigrate others with different varieties of developmental disabilities, and that made me a little uncomfortable.

In a way, the structure of the book contributes to some of my discomfort: Burcaw sometimes seems to be pounding on how much time he spent thinking of how to fit in and make people like him, and while I can certainly understand the feeling, hammering on it just comes off as self-absorbed.  I think that if the author had structured the book so that each chapter tackled specific aspects of his disability, instead of trying to tell a chronological story that ended up skipping around time-wise, it might have flowed better.  I’m pretty sure it would have focused the information so that his need for acceptance didn’t permeate so many page.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book.  It gave me a good look at a life that I would never have known about otherwise, and I appreciate his frankness and willingness to open his life and thoughts to the world.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

murder-of-crows“After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now, the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.”

I have to admit that I absolutely adore this series.  There’s something about it that just hits the spot with me, kind of like a warm hot chocolate on a cold day.  I’ve had a hard time pinning down what I find so appealing about it, but now that I’m reading the first book aloud to my husband, I’ve been able to figure some of it out.

First, there’s the worldbuilding.  Bishop has obviously put a lot of thought into how she has structured this version of North America and how the various races interact with each other.  Everything seems to constantly balance on a fine line between a workable compromise and utter disaster.  The Others hold much of the power, controlling things like raw materials and access to water.  Humans, on the other hand, are more technologically advanced, and there are hints that such advancements may tip the balance and cause problems that humanity may not be equipped to deal with.

The plot centers around this tension, as humans have discovered a way to drug Others so that they’re vulnerable to attack.  All of the escalating violence reminds me of conflicts over such issues as race and religion in real life—eventually, both sides end up ignoring the message from the other side in favor of hammering their own views home no matter the cost.  In this case, though, the scales are significantly more lopsided.  After all, you may disagree with your neighbor, but he’s not likely to see you as clever meat.

What I like most about this book are the characters, and especially the little details of how they interact with each other.  Even though the Others are ultimately dangerous predators, it’s hard not to be charmed at the image of Simon in his Wolf form putting his head in Meg’s lap to snooze while she watches television.  The Crows may be canny information gatherers, but their love of all things shiny gives them a childlike quality.  And who can help but smile at an elderly vampire who loves watching old human films?

The story revolves, of course, around blood prophet Meg.  Bishop has done an excellent job at giving her a lot of power without making her all-powerful.  There are restrictions on what she can see when she has a prophecy, and while what she sees always comes true, it’s often best understood in hindsight.  Mostly, Meg is just a human whose kindness and goodwill becomes the bridge between Others and humanity, and I have to admit that it’s refreshing to see a character who is just a nice person.

I can’t wait to see what Bishop does with this world next, but I hope she continues to expand outward and give us a look at what the world is like in more of North America, and even over in Europe (or the equivalents thereof).  I devoured Murder of Crows the way a Wolf devours cookies—quickly and eagerly, and wishing for more when it was done.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

“For more than a year Royce Melborn has tried to forget Gwen DeLancy, the woman who saved him and his partner Hadrian Blackwater from certain death. Unable to get her out of his mind, the two thieves return to Medford but receive a very different reception — Gwen refuses to see them. The victim of abuse by a powerful noble, she suspects that Royce will ignore any danger in his desire for revenge. By turning the thieves away, Gwen hopes to once more protect them. What she doesn’t realize is what the two are capable of — but she’s about to find out.”

I’ve raved about how much I love Sullivan’s books before, so you can consider the geeking and fangasming as a given at this point. When I saw that these two newest books about Royce and Hadrian were up for early review, I darn near fell over myself getting to the keyboard to place my requests for them. And I was not disappointed. In fact, I liked this one more than The Crown Tower. In that book, longtime readers have some idea of what’s going to happen in the story, and the novel itself is mostly a matter of details. The Rose and the Thorn covers events that were only hinted at before or were completely unknown.

The plot of this novel is, I think, key to the overall storyline that Sullivan has created, because it shows the forming of relationships that become central to the tale later on. Readers will see how Royce and Hadrian met Albert Winslow and came to work with him, as well as exploring the earliest stirrings of Royce and Gwen’s romance. Another story that I was pleasantly surprised to see included here was the background on an event central to Princess Arista, something that will have far-reaching consequences.

This novel works equally well for those new to this world as well as those already familiar from reading The Riyria Revelations. In fact, the author does such a good job of slipping in details from the previous book that, while reading The Crown Tower first certainly helps, it’s not necessary. I actually ended up reading these two books in reverse order and my enjoyment of them—and my understanding of what was going on—wasn’t significantly impacted. This might be a bit truer if you’ve read the original series, but only a little bit.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting reacquainted with much-loved characters like Arista and her family, as well as Albert and some of the other nobles. I also took a guilty pleasure in watching Royce at his worst as he slips into the persona of “Duster”, a ruthless assassin with no conscience—something not often seen in the original series. Beyond cheering him on for dealing with some nasty characters, I liked seeing what kind of person he was early in his friendship with Hadrian, because it gives some context for how far he’s come when we see him a decade or so down the line.

Above all, I love the fresh, clean sense of adventure in Sullivan’s series. While there is some violence, it’s never gratuitous, and there’s barely any cursing and nothing more than a kiss. These stories are filled with action, adventure, plot twists, outstanding characters and some wonderful worldbuilding. I could easily recommend this to anybody of about middle school age on up, because it manages to entertain without sliding into the kind of dark and edgy fantasy that’s popular nowadays.

Royce and Hadrian are this generation’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, albeit rather less roguish and more inclined to do the right thing than otherwise. Sullivan’s characters are easy to like, easy to cheer on, and easy to get invested in. Truth be told, I love these guys. The Rose and the Thorn is another great story from an author that deserves to be read by every fan of fantasy and adventure.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

“A warrior with nothing to fight for is paired with a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most valuable possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels the old wizard is after, and this prize can only be obtained by the combined talents of two remarkable men. Now if Arcadius can just keep Hadrian and Royce from killing each other, they just might succeed.”

My favorite characters are back! I fell in love with Royce and Hadrian way back when Theft of Swords first came out, and I’ve eagerly followed their adventures ever since. Interestingly, this is a prequel novel to the original series, detailing the adventure that saw the two teaming up. Sullivan says that you can start with this novel as an introduction to the world, and he’s right, but my own personal opinion is that you should read all the books in publication order. The experience will be that much richer.

My opinion aside, this novel would be a reasonable gateway drug to Sullivan’s particular style of literary crack. The only drawback would be that the warm friendship between Royce and Hadrian that’s so evident in the first series is still taking shape in this one. But, on their own, each character is interesting and has their own specific flaws and quirks that play off of the other’s personality. What’s also nice is that characters that were previously only seen in short glimpses get more page time here. Specifically, I was very happy to see more of Gwen, the brothel owner who carries a torch for Royce.

This has all the action and adventure that I’ve come to expect from Sullivan’s stories. From the quasi-murder-mystery that starts the novel going, to the epic theft from the Crown Tower, there’s plenty to keep you turning pages. The story also has the humor that I enjoyed so much from the previous books, much of it coming through the relationship between Royce and Hadrian regardless of the fact that they don’t know each other well here. Counterbalancing the funny parts are moments of seriousness that keep the novel from turning into a parody of the sword and sorcery genre.

It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what draws me to these books so strongly. The more that I think about it, the more I believe that it’s not any one element that works better than the others, but instead it’s that all of the elements mesh so well. The characters are likeable and fleshed out, the locations are vivid and memorable, the action is heart-pounding, and the story is filled with twists and turns aplenty. This is everything you want in a good fantasy novel.

This is one of those novels in which you can happily immerse yourself for hours at a time, and I highly recommend that you do so. The Crown Tower is a welcome addition to the tales of Royce and Hadrian, and I found it wonderful to revisit these characters who have come to feel like old friends.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

written-in-red“As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.”

I was a little skeptical when I picked up this book, because the premise sounded like it could easily veer into overused tropes, but I was pleasantly surprised. There is a heck of a lot to like about this novel. It clocks in at a hefty 448 pages, but those pages will fly by faster than you can imagine.

Forming a solid foundation for the tale is some superb worldbuilding. Readers first get an abbreviated history of humans and Others learning to live together (or not, as the case sometimes is) and how relations between the races now stands. Throughout the story, Bishop sprinkles in details about the world, although much of it deals with the Others more than humans. The writing is evocative enough that I got really drawn in to the world of the Courtyard and its daily operations and denizens. A lot of this worldbuilding helps to reinforce the notion that Others are very different from humans and have different needs and wants. The running joke about “special meat” may be black humor, but it does underline how most Others see humans as food.

What drew me most to this story were the characters. Meg in particular grows and changes a great deal as the novel progresses, going from a scared girl with no experience in the world to a woman whose very innocence helps to build bridges to the beings that most other humans think of as scary monsters. The author also does a great job with the Others such as Simon and his nephew Sam, Henry Beargard, and the enigmatic coffeehouse owner Tess. It’s constantly evident that they do not think like humans, but over the course of the story they become likeable even in their strangeness.

That very strangeness gives rise to some moments that are humorous and charming by turns. Little Sam, who spends most of his time as a wolf cub, plays like a puppy and “talks” to Meg in Wolf. I kept getting the amusing mental image of a pup growling and grumbling in a squeaky voice as though expecting to be understood. The ponies that deliver the mail become greedy for treats, and the Crow shapeshifters develop an obsession with Tinker Toys. But it’s not all fun and games, and there are a few scenes in which humans run afoul of the Courtyard and pay for it in very violent ways.

This novel is fun and funny, with enough darkness to make you appreciate the light moments all the more. Written in Red is a layered, complex story that dodges all the common tropes of urban fantasy and delivers a breathtakingly unique world. I can’t wait for the sequel, as enough is left open to promise much more action in the future.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

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