March-May Reads

25 05 2015

Books I read from March to May 2015:

Graphic novels2015-03-05 16.53.46

March Book Two ( by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell): more behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement with Congressman John Lewis. A must read for everyone. Huge hit with my students too. (****)

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl (by Ben Hatke): the kid and I read a couple of pages of this every night. We love Strong Strong and One J We are currently on the last Zita book… (****)

This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki: beautiful artwork, very evocative. The whole work oozes nostalgia. I loved this one, but I think it might be more of a critics’ favorite than a kids’ favorite. (****)


IMG_20150509_153050[1]Rethinking Normal: a Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill and Some Assembly Required: The not so secret life of a transgender teen by Arin Andrews are the memoirs of two transgender teens who were also in a relationship for a while. It reads pretty much like a teen would write it, which definitely adds to the authenticity. But obviously these two memoirs are pivotal in understanding what transgender teens go through. Both books were featured in my Awareness Week display at school and checked out in no time. (both ***)

No choirboy: murder, violence, and teenagers on death row by Susan Kuklin. This book is raw and sad. How could it not? No sensationalizing, just harsh truth. (****)

Books in a series

Half Bad by Sally Green: first in a series of books about ‘witches’… not at all like Harry Potter, though. It has been a while since I have liked a “fantasy” thing, but it is basically adventure with witches but done well. A bit of a slump about 2/3 in, but still very worthwhile. Definitely a series to continue. (*** ½ )

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson: 3rd in the Shades of London series. This one is better that The Madness Underneath, but still not as good as the stellar first book The Name of the Star. I do hope there will be a rocking conclusion of this series in book 4, though. (*** ½ )

Isla and the Happily Ever After: I have a soft spot for Stephanie Perkins since I saw her at Politics and Prose in Washington. Bonus is that she does contemporary romance really really well. Give me a Perkins and a Dessen and I’m a happy camper J. Isla and the Happily Ever After has the added bonus of giving us more glimpses of the characters of the other books. (***)


The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos: there are not enough music-related YA books. So if you pick this one up, make sure to pick up Yvonne Prinz’s The Vinyl Princess! These books make a great pairing. (***)

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin: Besides the fact that I could not stand the character (or the way she was being presented by all of the players in the story ) of Addison Stone – at all – this book is really well done: a faux-memoir, complete with photos and artwork and disclaimers etc. I really did look up if there was an ‘Addison Stone’ after a chapter or so 😉 (*** ½ )IMG_20150525_110557[1]

When I was the greatest and The boy in the black suit, both by Jason Reynolds. I am not a fan of the writing. In When I was the greatest, the narration was a bit too one-dimensional for my liking. And The Boy in the Black Suit just confirmed that Reynolds’ style isn’t my style. Both books were well-liked by kids in my class, though. (both **)

And we stay by Jenny Hubbard: A character’s poetry just always distracts me in a book (that’s a me-thing), even if there’s an Emily Dickinson theme throughout the story. The story of grief, recovery and friendship is great though. Hubbard’s style is very recognizable. I always like it when I can pick out a writer’s words from just a few lines. (*** ½ )

Invincible by Amy Reed. Amy Reed’s books are a hit with my teen girls. Beautiful and Crazy have a very high circulation and I am sure that it’ll be the same for Invincible. As for me, certain things are ‘believable’ – like how quickly Evie gets addicted and the behavior she displayed after the “miraculous” recovery – but other things were just too rushed. I don’t really think the Marcus character was necessary either. I would have liked to have seen more of the parents, sister and Kasey tIMG_20150525_110925[1]oo. This reads like a train, though, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I do have to say that I was a bit disappointed to hear that this is not a standalone… (**)

Press Play by Eric Devine: this made me think of Joshua Cohen’s Leverage a lot. They’re both set a sports context, there are some brutal things going on ‘behind the scenes’ (here’s it’s the hazing and lacrosse, in Cohen’s books is bullying – and much worse – and football) and there really are no compromises in this book. It’s extremely honest and raw, and there’s a good voice, but the book is too long for me. (***)

How it went down by Kekla Magoon: This is such a pertinent story at this moment in time. Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white. No one seems to know exactly what was going on and everything has the need to share what they thing went down (there are more than 15 different ‘voices’ in the book). As I said, this book is every so important right now, but as a book, I felt it could have been ‘tighter’: some voices are indistinguishable, which (again) drags out the story a little bit. (***)

Top picks

The next two – although also standalones – deserve their own category:2015-04-01 16.00.31

We all looked up by Tommy Wallach: It’s not often I read a blurb and then read the book and I feel the blurb is *exactly* what the book is like, but in this case it is: “This Generation’s The Stand… at once troubling, uplifting, scary and heart-wrenching.”
Also, The Stand was one of my favorite books when I was the age of the characters in this book and often when a books is likened to The Stand, it ends up being a disappointment afterwards, or worse the book is dragged out over 2 or 3 or more books. But We All Looked Up definitely wasn’t a disappointment: a good story, great characters, drive, action, feelings, totally unpretentious writing… a “real book”, you know… Loved it! (*****)

I’ll give you the sun by Jandy Nelson made me miss my metro stop. That’s always a good thing… The writing is gorgeous, there was a great interplay between the words and the artwork (I read the UK edition). This definitely deserved all the accolades it got. It also got a (quick) translation to Dutch, but it doesn’t have any artwork, which is a pity. (*****)

On the surface We all looked up and I’ll give you the sun have nothing whatsoever in common, but they both made me fall in love with reading all over again. Both of these books have the capacity of making you forget about time and the world around you. The reading pleasure was high for me in these two books. And isn’t that why we read: to feel?



Read in November 2014

3 12 2014

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to in November. I also don’t have the time right now for more than sketchy impressions of the books I read, rather than the full reviews they rightfully deserve. So here goes nothing…

Power books by power women, or also: books that will kick your ass as they rightly should:


 1) Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (by A.S. King aka the most missed author at NCTE/ALAN 2014)

I really hope to write a longer review of this, because this book and this author so deserves all the praise! This is a veritable horror story too. And can I be shallow and say how much I love my signed copy? Look at it!! But seriously. Read this!ASKingNCTE2014

4 stars (but really, it already has 6 starred reviews!)

2) The Truth about Alice (by Jennifer Mathieu)

There’s definitely an overarching theme in my November reads and that is cruelty. In this particular case, it’s cruelty in the guise of ‘slut shaming’. The Truth about Alice is Jennifer Mathieu’s debut YA novel and I was completely and shamelessly sucked in by it.

I “loved” every bit of this book: the multiple perspectives, the ruthless investigation of stereotyping people (and characters in a book), the way it unflinchingly shows how boys and girls are seen and judged in a completely different light. I also “hated” everything about this book: the way the boys and girls are shown and how stereotypes are reinforced. How some people have (too) loud voices and others don’t have a voice at all.

This is such an important book. For boys and for girls. And not in the least: for the adults raising those boys and those girls.

4 stars

3) Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (by Meg Medina)

This is a book from the heart. It’s not a ‘nice’ story, though. On the contrary, Meg Medina wrote a harsh psychologically layered story about bullying and female relationships. It’s edgy – and I’m not even talking about that title (which, by the way kicks so much ass 😉 – and I’m sure not just girls will identify with Piddy Sanchez or possibly even the mysterious Yaqui Delgado. If there’s one thing that’s abudantly clear after reading this provocative little book then it’s that everyone has a story: the victim, but also the bully, even if we don’t know what that story is, as is the case with Yaqui Delgado. And more than being ‘just another bullying book’, what really stands out is Medina’s great rendering of female relationships.

3.5 stars

Power books by power men

1) Knockout Games (by G.Neri)

Based on true events, comes G. Neri’s Knockout Games. I read this one right before Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and what the two definitely have in common is the violence. This one is a ruthless book. Set in St. Louis it’s all about a knockout club, a group of middle and high school kids who basically get into random violence (knocking out random people on the street for the fun and thrill of it). When Erica is uprooted to St. Louis after her parents’ divorce, she gets mixed up with the game (she’s good with a camera) and its leader, K (Kalvin), the Knockout King.

The narrative and the language are very straightforward. There’s no needless fancy talk, which wouldn’t really fit with the book’s topic anyway. Also like Yaqui Delgado, I see this being liked by a younger audience (Yes, yes, I know: there’s violence. And sex. Bite me). There’s also the same trope of the outsider trying to fit in, which that age group really seems to appreciate a lot. In this case, the protagonist is the white Erica who moves to a predominantly African American neighborhood and who’s trying to keep her head above water after her parents’ divorce.

3 stars


2) He Said, She Said (by Kwame Alexander)

This is described as a ‘hip hop’ novel and the language use of esp. the male protagonist Omar or T-Diddy (I did the same eye-rolling as the female protagonist!) in the book also reflects this. However, I can’t really say I was into it all that much. I also don’t like hip hop, so maybe it’s that. The story is too stereotypical for my taste: a good looking star football player (a real “player” too, of course) and a studious and responsible girl. Of course they’re destined to meet. Mixed in with this tale of destined yet too good to be true romance is a fight for social justice at the local high school.

I don’t know, it’s all very much in your face. I just couldn’t see past the shallowness of it all (maybe that’s the point?) and I just like my stories more nuanced and my characters with a lot more depth.

2.5 stars

Graphic novels:

1)  The Silence of our Friends (by Mark Long)

This graphic novel – also drawn by Nate Powell – is another (historical) graphic novel/memoir in the same vein as March Book One. It’s not quite as powerful as March Book One, but I can see this being liked a lot by my reluctant readers who’re really into history and the Civil Rights Movement.

3 stars

2) The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (by Stephen Collins)

GET THIS BOOK NOW. GET IT! NOW! Absolutely brilliant graphic novel. What can I say? There’s the neat and orderly island of Here. The threat of a chaotic There. And there’s a *gigantic beard*. I repeat: there’s a gigantic beard. What more do you need? Brilliant artwork? It’s all there.

Gigantic Beard 1

Gigantic Beard 2

It’s the ultimate surrealist and eerily honest truth metaphor about the state of man in our current society (unfortunately it’s probably also the ultimate hipster book). This book is  awesome. Did I mention there’s a gigantic beard? That is evil?

5 stars


Up next: photo impression of NCTE/ALAN 2014

Sex & Violence (by Carrie Mesrobian)

28 05 2014

Sex & ViolenceThere’s nothing standard or conventional about Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence… at least not from a YA-literary point of view. It would be hard to pick a book – any book – within the current (or even last decade) wave of ‘realistic’ YA that is as openly bold and revealing about what sex can be and mean to a teenager today and what the impact of that is on a teen’s personality. Of course, ‘sex’ may have been present in a lot of those books (either implicitly or explicitly – NA anyone?), but an in-depth almost dramatic study of sexuality is hard to come by.

Ever since his mother died, 17-year-old Evan Carter and his father have been moving around. In that time Evan has attended too many schools to remember, which means that Evan has always been the “new guy”. Using this (mysterious) status to his own advantage, Evan has a past of hooking up with those girls most likely to have sex, making him into the perpetual philanderer moving from hook up to hook up, without any reason or desire to have any of those hook ups turning into meaningful relationships. He even goes so far as to delete the girls’ phone numbers after sex. In his current school, he’s sort of dating Collette, the ex-girlfriend of his brutish roommate. However, things go horribly wrong and Evan is brutally beaten and almost left for dead in the school’s communal shower. After this severe physical and mental trauma, Evan’s dad – who up till then was a mostly absent father – moves them to the quiet town of Pearl Lake, Minnesota. This is the place where Evan has to find a way to deal with his past and prevent it from occurring again.

Evan is not a nice character by any means. However, he doesn’t need to be to be a believable and realistic character, which Mesrobian has clearly understood. Obviously, the way Evan treats his hook ups is not very nice, making him into the ultimate asshole who gets what’s coming to him… BUT, Evan is also a person who has to deal with a severe traumatic event and the way Mesrobian manages to do that (e.g. Evan’s fear of taking showers) is incredibly well done. Sex & Violence is first and foremost a character study, investigating all the insecurities and resulting pains (again, both physical and psychological) that Evan Carter has to deal with. And for a character to change it takes more than just one thing, or one event, it takes a whole road of teeny tiny steps, and even then, there’s no guaranteeing that change – or resolution – will ever happen. This is probably the most frustrating thing for the reader: there’s not obvious or overt resolution in Sex & Violence. The reader does get a glimpse into what may or may not have been the ‘origins’ of Evan’s history of hooking up, but in all honesty, it’s not what will put the reader at rest. The anxiety, the pain and the guilt that Evan has carrying around with him don’t just miraculously go away, Evan is still Evan, how therapeutic the move to Pearl Lake, the sessions with his therapist (e.g. the letters to Collette), and the new relationships he’s formed, may have been for him… there are ugly parts of him that he will always have and that’s not even a bad thing.

After Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, this is the second novel I read this year that’s dealing in some way or other with PTSD and both of them have been incredibly successful at making the topic visible and open for debate. Something to show rather than to hide. Sex & Violence is really frank and open and unflinchingly real and one heck of a debut novel. Also, kudos to Mesrobian for the multi-faceted portrayal of girls in this book!


P.S. As a totally irrelevant aside, the edition I read contained a number of typos which I hope to see edited out in the next editions of the book. Yes, I’m anal like that. J

P.P.S. Second aside: people looked weird at me in the train when I was reading this book. Yes, the title of course, but I think they also thought I was reading a gay S&M novel if I had to analyze the way they looked at the cover… Don’t judge a book by its (paperback) cover is definitely something that rings through here, though. But I have to say I much prefer the hardcover issue.

The Impossible Knife of Memory (by Laurie Halse Anderson)

18 05 2014

Noggin & The Impossible Knife of MemoryI have never known a Laurie Halse Anderson novel to be a disappointment and The Impossible Knife of Memory – published 15 whole years (already!) after the seminal Speak – is also anything but! On the contrary, it shows once again that Anderson can put her mind to something – in this case ‘dealing with PTSD’ – run with it, make the topic her own, mold it and shape it into an impeccably written novel, containing convincing characters. Characters who are anything but perfect, characters who do questionable things, but who are incredibly believable and real.

17-year-old Hayley Kincain has been homeschooled for a long time because her father’s restless mind didn’t allow him to stay put. Now, though, her father decides it’s best to settle down again so Hayley can graduate from school like the rest of her peers. This however, does not tell the entire story. Hailey doesn’t really want to deal with her memories, memories that involve a dead mother, a dead grandmother, an evil alcie stepmother Trish, but most importantly an ex-military father who’s suffering from PTSD and who she is basically taking care of. A daughter performing a parent’s duty and keeps the fact that she’s suffering from it a secret for the outside world.

Through some flashbacks, the reader gets to see some of the horrors that Hayley’s dad went through during his deployment in Iraq, a deployment which now causes severe trauma. Some of this is not easy to read, nor should it be. This is an incredibly serious issue and the reader gets to see it all. All of Hayley’s father’s experiences influence Hayley and the way she interacts with the people around her, who she considers to be zombies. As a result, Hayley doesn’t really have a lot of friends. There’s Gracie, the girl she knew ‘from before’, but now there’s also Finn, a boy who shows a real interest in her. Hayley doesn’t really understand this herself but she slowly lets him into her complicated life. With his help Hayley starts recognizing certain things about her life and the people in it, what she needs and what her dad needs. At the same time she starts to realize she might not be the only one dealing with difficult (home) issues. It’s also great to see different types of relationships in a novel, not just boy-girlfriend (which there also is, of course), but also father-daughter, stepmother-stepdaughter, friend-friend and a few more.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is one my favorite 2014 reads so far, no question about that. For all the horrible things and the darkness it contains, there’s something incredibly hopeful and at times even funny about it too. Anderson has a knack for infusing her (main) characters with a certain wit that lights up their sentences. Not that it ends all sunflowers and daisies, of course, because issues like PTSD or broken relationships don’t just heal miraculously. The Impossible Knife of Memory confirms Anderson as a go-to author: powerful story, true characters, stellar writing, wit, emotion and a dash of romance? If only more books could deliver on all of those points!

The Waking Dark (by Robin Wasserman)

22 04 2014

wakingdarkThe town of Oleander is nothing exceptional… except for one thing, something brewing underneath the surface that one horrible day led to the most gruesome of things: The Killing Day. 12 people in the small Kansas town were killed by 5 other Oleander people. Four of them killed themselves afterwards, except for Cass whose suicide attempt failed. With no recollection of what happened, she’s put in an institution hoping that this means things will be buried forever.

But then, a year later, a storm came, the town of Oleander is put under military quarantine (for which you don’t exactly get a reason until…) and the distrust that had been plaguing the people of Oleander ever since The Killing Day is about to come to the surface once again… no more hiding, not for Cass, who’s now out of the mental institution, but not for the other group of ‘outsiders’ in the ‘normal’ city of Oleander either: Jule (the girl trying to escape her family reputation of meth addicts and meth dealers), West (the high school football star mourning his dead lover, Nick), Ellie (the religious zealot who’s trying to save all of their souls) and Daniel (who’s the son of a Preacher and has taken the care of his younger brother Milo upon himself as he sees his father suffering from his own personal demons) and a bunch of other teens, like Grace and Milo who all blend in and out of the story as you go along.

Wasserman changes focus so very often throughout her narrative that getting to the essence of a character was really hard. The book is told in the 3rd person, which here is a very distancing perspective, and which always prevents the reader from internalizing the often shocking things that happen to the characters or that the characters do themselves. Each of the protagonists has something that sets them apart, and each of them has baggage galore, so once the mayhem starts the book almost feels like an experiment in human behavior focusing on rage, violence and (im)morality of certain acts. Something to watch, rather than experience. It’s also the main reason why I never clicked with any of the characters, and there’s nothing worse than feeling indifferent about the fate of a character in a book.

The Waking Dark is very much set in a Stephen King horror tradition…that much is clear, from Wasserman’s own acknowledgements, to the blurb, to the marketing of this book, and also to the brewing menacing style of writing. However… Stephen King is more than just horror and style. For me, Stephen King is first and foremost a brilliant storyteller who manages to create a menacing universe, yes, but whose characters within that universe are so well-rounded that even at the creepiest of times, the characters (that I can care for or have actual emotions about) and the lavish plot always – always – win over style. “Style” is not so much secondary with King, as that it feels like he’s not even trying and it’s an integral part of the overall plot. It’s not that Wasserman is trying too hard in The Waking Dark, though. What bothered me the most is that the style becomes an impediment to the plot, the mystery and the characters. Ultimately the style drags out the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, until you really have to look for the plot – which is there, for sure, but which should have been to the forefront and not in the background like it is now.

As for the ultimate resolution of the story? Well, I don’t think that this was Wasserman’s intention in the first place, and it shows… because when we get to the why, it’s not very… well, original. It’s just a bit of a cheap way out.

The Waking Dark is horror, but there’s much better to be found out there, not in the least in Stephen King’s magnificent oeuvre. However, if the Maine Master of Horror doesn’t shake your bones enough, try Daniel Kraus’s Rotters and Scowler or Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger.

Girls, girls, girls… (Fat Angie, Fangirl & Doll Bones)

7 04 2014

Doll Bones (By Holly Black)

Doll BonesIt’s a fact universally acknowledged that porcelain dolls are exceptionally creepy. From Holly Black – of The Spiderwick Chronicles, Modern Faerie Tales and much much more fame – I expected nothing if not a creepy old tale of a superweird doll scaring the bejeezus out of me. In that respect I didn’t get what I came for, because rather than a scary story, we’re actually getting a fairly standard middle grade road trip ‘adventure’ story of 3 friends, Zach, Poppy and Alice, who want to lay the bones of this creepy little doll to rest.

Maybe I just went into this with the wrong expectations, but I thought it was all fairly safely played and written, especially when it comes to the characterization of the three protagonists. This reads like an adventure book about friendship, but the characters making up that friendship aren’t pronounced enough to be wholly successful. Holly Black also merely touches upon some of the family dynamics, making this novel to only scratch the surface of much deeper things and in that respect, I think Doll Bones and Holly Black missed a few opportunities.

3 stars


Fangirl (by Rainbow Rowell)

FangirlLast year’s hit sensation was definitely Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (for a variety of reason, not in the least that it’s just a really great book!). So when Fangirl came out, I got an e-ARC, but didn’t get around to reading it BECAUSE I JUST HATE READING STUFF ON A SCREEN. Anyway, I finally got a hold of a print copy and… was disappointed with the outcome.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the concept of fandoms. Hell, I belonged to the X-Files Fandom way back when. Yes, that’s before the Harry Potter Fandom, on which Fangirl’s Simon Snow Fandom is obviously based. The main problem I have with the Fandom stuff in the book is that it’s Seriously, there’s nothing exciting whatsoever about the characters that Cath, the protagonist is obsessed with, Simon and Baz. Rowell introduces every chapter with extracts from either the ‘actual’ Simon Snow books, or with an extract from Cath’s fanfiction, but after one or two of those, I just couldn’t bring myself to actually read them anymore, because: SOoooo Boooooring.

This leaves the other aspect of this novel – which is obviously not just about fandoms and fangirling, namely the character part and Cath growing up into college as her own person and not an appendage of her twin sister Wren, and/or out of the fandom. There are a whole bunch of minor characters around Cath (like her twin sister Wren, the love interest Levi, her roommate, the writing partner Nick, her bipolar dad, etc. etc.), but I’d argue that also on this front Fangirl can’t bring what Eleanor & Park brought: real characters I could root for.

Add to that that this book is a way way too long (+400 pages) and dragged all the way until the end, which was then completely rushed, and you can safely say that I thought Fangirl was a big disappointment. I missed spunk in the main character, I missed sparks in the romance, and I missed guts in the writing.

2.5 stars


Fat Angie (by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo)

fatangieSpunk and sparks is not something I missed in e.E. Charlton-Trujillo’s Fat Angie. And I’m sorry, Simon Snow Fandom, but a Buffy mention in the first couple of pages of any book will bring a smile onto my face, even if the main character of said book has to go through the worst of things on a daily basis: extreme bullying, a shitty home life… When KC Romance walks into Fat Angie’s life, things are looking up, even though Angie at first doesn’t really know how to react to a person who genuinely seems to want to be friends with her, rather than kick her when she’s down.

Fat Angie was one of the two winners of the 2014 Stonewall Book Award, along with Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Unlike that book, Fat Angie definitely has more literary spunk and where I felt Cronn-Mills’s book was first and foremost “an issues book about a very important topic that needed to be told”, to me  Fat Angie is an actual good book as well, regardless of topic or issues dealt with.

3.5 stars


Charm & Strange (by Stephanie Kuehn)

23 03 2014
Charm & Strange @Handelsbeurs, Ghent

Charm & Strange @Handelsbeurs, Ghent

Charm & Strange is a strange little book and for the longest of time I just couldn’t decide whether the book was on the good side of strange or the bad side of strange, but then something just clicked and from then on out, Kuehn managed to convince me with her oddly haunting psychological story of a boy gone wild (or did he?).

This is definitely a book you want to go into completely unspoiled, so suffice it to say that the story flashes back between the boy Drew – who’s angry and young (10) and spends a summer with his cousins – and the boy Win – who’s 16 and almost irreparably alone at a boarding school. Something is going on with these boys (who, yes, are the same person), and Kuehn manages to hold out until the very end for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. By the time you have reached the end, the boundaries of psychological mystery have been explored and crossed, which is in large part due to Kuehn almost alienating prose.

Charme & Strange is Stephanie Kuehn’s debut novel and it’s not very surprising that a novel this ambitious in its execution was recognized with the William C. Morris Award. It’s an extremely brave (some would say frustrating) debut, which will instigate extreme reactions, I’m sure, but when a book stretches the possibilities of a genre the way Kuehn managed to do and does it successfully, keeping readers on the uncomfortable edge of their seat , then no amount of praise can ever be too high. Charm & Strange is a unique story. Highly recommended for brave readers!

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