Book Review – “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne

This was November’s book on my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a children’s novel. It has very mature themes and requires a grasp of irony as well as some knowledge of history to fully appreciate, but it renders a difficult and complex subject accessible to a young audience in the same way as The Book Thief, so although it is not recommended for young children, it is entirely appropriate for the early secondary school age group.

the boy in the striped pyjamas imgI remember when this book was published in 2006. It was widely acclaimed, but also controversial; there were some questions marks over its historical accuracy (one senior rabbi argued that nine year-old boys were not kept in concentration camps, all were gassed because they could not work and were therefore of no use, though this argument also been disputed) and others have questioned whether such a relationship, between a young inmate and the son of the camp commandant, could have gone on for so long undetected, particularly when Bruno slips under the fence. Whatever its problems, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was made into a successful film within two years of publication.

 

The central character is Bruno, the nine year-old son of a senior Nazi. He lives happily with his parents, twelve year-old sister, and their maid Maria in a large house in Berlin. Until, that is, “the Fury” comes to visit and shortly afterwards the family is forced to move to a much less nice and isolated house in “Out With”, where Bruno’s father has an important new job. One of the charms of the book is Bruno’s habitual mis-naming and his innocent perspective on events, even though it is clear to the reader what the true facts are. An example of this is Bruno’s observations about changes in his mother’s behaviour, suggesting first her flirtation and possible affair with a young lieutenant, then her depression, and tensions in his parents’ marriage brought about by the family posting.

Bruno’s bedroom window faces the camp, though he has no idea what it is. Arguably, given his curious nature, it is perhaps a little surprising that he is not more questioning about the camp, the fences and the people he sees inside, all of whom wear the same uniform (the striped pyjamas). It must be remembered, however, that Bruno has almost no-one to talk to; his relationship with his parents is remote, he has no friends, he and his sister share a mutual contempt (he calls her the “Hopeless Case”) and the other adults around are involved in a conspiracy of silence that keeps him completely in the dark. The sense of fear, unwillingness to speak up or out, anxiety about the world, and intimidation are palpable.

Lonely and bored, Bruno eventually decides to go exploring and at the boundary of the camp one day he meets another boy of his own age, Shmuel, who is interred at the camp. Bruno is thrilled to at last have someone his own age to talk to and the two boys strike up a friendship. As readers, we are meant to see this friendship as in some ways unlikely, and in others completely obvious – why would two young boys be bothered about such differences as clothing, housing, status? They are just children. The author also comments on the transience of friendship at this age (in Berlin Bruno has three “friends for life”, whom he misses terribly, but after a few months he cannot even remember their names) and I think this helps address some of the credibility difficulties of the plot; friendship between young boys is mainly superficial. Bruno wonders about some aspects of Shmuel’s lifestyle, but Shmuel explains very little, which perhaps would not be surprising if the child was deeply traumatised.

No spoilers here, but there is a brilliant denouement to the story. Although it is a book that has been much discussed, and I have almost watched the film a couple of times, I had managed to avoid knowing the ending as I was determined to read it one day. I am so glad because there is a brilliant inevitability to it – there is a point where you just know what is going to happen and the author places you in this incredible state of suspense and dread, despite Bruno’s innocence. I have said enough!

It’s a short book, and the writing carries you along at a pace that feels like the mind of a child – no real sense of time. I think it’s also a book where you have to suspend the sorts of (adult) questions that would make the events improbable, in favour of the bigger picture, which is a fundamental questioning of the forces that create fascism, terror and discrimination; if only we could see all these things through the eyes of a child they could not exist.

A powerful and engaging novel which pulls off the trick of being both important and highly readable. Recommended for grown-ups and kids of 12+ alike.

How did you feel reading this book?

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “The Umbrella Mouse” by Anna Fargher

I’m finally getting back into my blogging groove after a fairly difficult few months and feel it’s time to revive my occasional #Keep Kids Reading series. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s books and about making sure our young people don’t neglect reading in favour of seemingly more “exciting” (but ultimately less satisfying) pursuits – you know what I’m talking about don’t you?! Every writer and keen reader I know remembers childhood reading with joy – the torch under the bedclothes, a favourite book read over and over, sitting on a parent or grandparent’s lap enjoying time shared. There is a relatively short window in which to foster a love of reading, a love which brings lifelong benefits, and I fear that many youngsters today are missing out on something precious. #KeepKidsReading is all about trying to keep books high up on our childrens’ agendas. Plus I love an excuse to sit down with something from the amazing world of contemporary literature for kids!

The Umbrella Mouse imgI’ve just finished a lovely little book The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. When I was browsing in my local bookshop a few months ago, one of the assistants recommended it to me and said it had had her in tears. I knew then it was a ‘must-read’! I got my copy secondhand online and it’s signed!

The story is set in 1944 in World War Two and the author says she wrote it because she felt there were not enough books about this period aimed at children. The story is set amongst an animal community that is affected by the war and plays its part in defeating the Nazis. Pip Hanway is a mouse who lives with her parents in an umbrella shop in London. Their nest is inside the prized antique umbrella that sits in the window of the shop. When the shop is destroyed by bombing Pip finds herself alone, her parents and the shop owners seemingly having been killed. All that is left of the life she has known is the umbrella. She decides that her only hope is to go to Gignese in Italy, to the umbrella museum there that her parents have told her about and where she knows she still has family.

She is befriended by a rescue dog, Dickin, who takes her to St Giles, an underground hub for all the London animals, domestic and wild, made homeless by the war, and thence to the Secret Underground Animal Army, an intelligence outfit helping Churchill by mobilising animals across Europe. Dickin believes they will help Pip get to Italy with her umbrella. They agree that she can participate in a mission to get a secret message to the (animal) Resistance in France, and from there will be directed to Italy.

After a perilous journey through a storm, down the Thames and across the Channel, Pip arrives in France with her companions, Hans, a German rat fighting on the Allied side, and GI Joe, a messenger pigeon. She is welcomed by the Resistance animals there and takes part in a further dangerous mission to sabotage a German camp, at which Pip displays bravery she did not know she was capable of. Her commitment to the cause helps her to deal with the grief at the loss of her family and her old life, as she finds new friends, and exposes a traitor in the midst of the Resistance force.

The book did not have me in tears, which is perhaps a good thing! It was a nice little tale that had plenty of action, good characters, a nice solid story and gently introduced ideas about the war, the brutality of the Nazis, the bravery of those who fought against them and the impact the war had on civilians. The standard of writing makes it quite mature but the story and characters (talking animals) suggests a younger age group, so I would recommend it for 8-11 year olds, with the caveat that younger kids will need to be quite accomplished readers, while it would not suit those at the upper end of the age range who have moved on to more mature texts. So, for example, anyone who is on to the Diary of Anne Frank (which I think all my kids did at school in year 6) may find this book a little childish. I hope that helps. This is apparently the first in a planned series about the adventures of Pip the umbrella mouse, so look out for more.

A nice one for me – read on a day when I was ill in bed, and needed something not too taxing!

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Man Booker Review #2 – “The Long Take” by Robin Robertson

Time for my second Man Booker shortlist review and of the three I have read so far, my favourite. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did; the subject matter – a D-Day veteran suffering from PTSD – did not appeal particularly and when I saw the format – extended verse – I found my heart sinking slightly. That’s totally unfair, and I can in no way begin to justify that reaction other than to say I just love a good solid novel! I am delighted to say I was completely wrong, and I think it’s great when our prejudices and preferences are tested and we are pleasantly surprised.

The Long Take imgThe central character is Walker, a man from rural Nova Scotia, who fought with the Allied forces in the D-Day landings. He has seen and experienced terrible events, death and injury that most of us can barely even imagine, and he survived. After the end of the war, he goes back to the United States and finds himself living among the homeless in New York City. The book is divided into four sections: 1946, 1948, 1951 and 1953 each set in a different US city (though Los Angeles is the setting for both 1948 and 1953). As he reflects on his experiences, it becomes clear that it was impossible for him to return home to Canada. He reminisces about the quiet, gentle life he led there, where the rhythms of the seasons, the dependence on the harvests of the seas, and community events (such as village hall dances) dominate everyone’s existence. It’s as if the contrast between that life and the brutality he witnessed in the war means he fears contaminating the innocence of those he has left behind. He can never go back, never unsee what he has seen, and those he once loved will never be able to understand how he has been changed.

In New York City, Walker lives among the vulnerable and the dispossessed. He is already suffering the effects of his PTSD:

A dropped crate or a child’s shout, or car

                Backfiring, and he’s in France again’

                That taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood.”

In 1948 Walker moves to Los Angeles and begins working on a city newspaper, initially writing film reviews, but then, as his profile grows and he earns respect among fellow journalists for his writing, he is given weightier projects. He persuades his Editor to let him do an extended investigation into homelessness. This takes him to San Francisco in 1951, and then back to LA in 1953. Walker is an observer, he seems to move on the periphery. He earns the trust of the cast of characters he befriends on the streets and his own personal trauma enables him to empathise with them:

                “People; just like him.

                Having given up the country for the city,

                Boredom for fear, the faces

                Gather here in these streets

                Like spectators in a dream.

                They wanted to be anonymous

                Not swallowed whole, not to disappear.”

The final part of the book is the most intensely drawn. Walker recalls the devastation of older parts of the city, the traditional buildings, to make way for modern concrete highways and car parks, fuelled by corruption in the city authorities and mafia money. In the process many of the itinerant population were made homeless from whatever meagre shelter they had created for themselves and effectively thrown onto the scrap heap. The account of the destruction of the soul of the city is juxtaposed with vivid and detailed descriptions of the war:

                “The side of a building fell like a tree.

                Then the rest of it just collapsed

                In on itself, immediately lost

                In a dense cloud of brick dust;

                The delay of the noise and shock waves.

                There was an army there, pulling down everything north of 1st.

                …

The sound of mortars like gravel on a metal slide; a running tear. Right next to me, young Benjamin took some shrapnel in the throat: his windpipe torn open, so he’s gargling blood and staring at me, fumbling at his neck like he feels his napkin is slipping.”

What is fascinating and moving about the work is how Walker’s wartime experiences have made him more human, more empathic, whereas those who live oblivious are consumed by inhumanity, lack of feeling for others and, in the case of the authorities, cruelty. America is failing those in need in the pursuit of economic growth, greed and modernism.

I thought I would find the verse structure annoying, but it is beautiful, as is the economy of Robertson’s language. It perfectly suits the slightly ethereal, enigmatic central character and his own relatively silent presence in the communities in which he moves and verse provides a way of creating the vivid imagery of his wartime recollections.

I recommend this book highly. Don’t be put off if you are not used to reading verse, you will get used to it quickly. An amazing piece of work.

What is your favourite book on the Man Booker 2018 shortlist so far?

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Book review ‘Salt to the Sea’ by Ruta Sepetys

I saw Ruta Sepetys speak at the Hay Festival in May and I’m so glad I did, because otherwise this book may not have crossed my radar. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel (though DO NOT let that put you off) and there were many young people in the audience with whom Ruta was gracious, charming and generally lovely.

RutaThis book is magnificent and I urge you to read it. It was my book club read this month and we all loved it. It concerns a period in hsitory that is seldom openly discussed – the brutality of the Russian advance into Germany at the end of the WW2. One of the earliest books I reviewed on this blog was A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous author) which was an account, reputedly a true story, of the siege of that city and its final capture by Russian troops who, half-starved and brutalised themselves, set about rape and pillage of the native population (which by that stage was mostly women, children, older men and the infirm) on an industrial scale. It is tough reading. My WW2 history is not great so correct me if I’m wrong, but these events are not widely recognised and discussed because of course Stalin was part of the Allied group which defeated Hitler. There was, and, arguably, continues to be, a reluctance to openly acknowledge anything which might tarnish the glory of that victory. We all know that the Allies committed many atrocities in the name of war, but somehow these have been brushed over.

Enough of the political history because Salt to the Sea is so much more than that; it concerns an event that almost no-one knows about, the sinking of the civilian ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 by a Russian submarine, resulting in the largest loss of life at sea in maritime history, My children at school know all about the Titanic, thanks to the movie and the 100th anniversary of its sinking in 2012. A little over 1,500 people died in that disaster. Nine thousand died on the Wilhelm Gustloff, over half of them children and almost all of them desperate refugees.

It is a story beautifully and skilfully told through the eyes of four characters – Joana, a young Lithuanian nurse, Florian, A Prussian who worked for but then subsequently fled from the Nazi art theft effort, Emilia, a Polish girl from Lwow, whose parents sent her away from home to live with a German family with whom they thought she would be safe, and Alfred, a young German soldier, conceited, inept and deluded. Joana, Florian and Emilia are part of a small group, which includes an elderly shoemaker nicknamed ‘Poet’, a young boy, Klaus, a young blind girl, Ingrid, and Eva, a bold and forthright German woman. The raggle-taggle group has come together on the road, along with thousands of others, and is making its way to Gotenhafen, fleeing the brutal Russian advance, in the hope of boarding a ship which will take them further west and to what they hope will be relative safety.

It is the end of the war and they all know the Nazi Reich is close to collapsing, but the military remains in charge and committed to the Fuhrer’s cause. The group is also well aware of the fates of others who have fallen into the hands of Russian soldiers, some of them having direct experience of Russian violence. The group is facing multiple threats, not just from the Nazis and the Russians, but also from starvation and sickness. We follow the group as they trek across Prussia, learning about their back-stories, and the relationships between the group’s members evolve.

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“Freedom” – my copy, signed by the author!

Once they reach Gotenhafen, they feel relief and begin to feel safe. Although the town has become a ghetto, with thousands of desperate people trying to escape on a handful of ships, they are hopeful and begin to imagine a future once again. Alfred is one of the sailors on the ship and by the time the group meets him we have learned much about his earlier life. He will become an important character in the events our group is about to face, and his back-story is important to understanding the motivation behind his actions.

For the reader, the tension here is excruciating because although the characters are hopeful and relieved, we know that tragedy will strike the ship. It is just a question of who, if any of them, will survive.

Sometimes, knowledge of the general outcome of a story can have a profound effect on your reading experience. This was very much the case for me here. The tentative joy, so long held-back and so fragile, that the characters experience, contrasted so deeply with the doom and dread that I felt for them.

This is a Young Adult novel and I would suggest that it is appropriate for 14 years and upwards. Even then, some younger teens might find it quite challenging. I would liken it to The Book Thief. The characters are fictional, but the events portrayed in this book are real and we have a duty to acknowledge what happened in the past rather than to airbrush it.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

A little light reading

I usually have two or three books on the go at any one time – at the moment it’s my book club book and a children’s book, and then I usually have one other. Sometimes this ‘other’ is necessary as a bit of light relief! Many people tell me that they love to read, but can’t find the time, so they read in bed…and fall asleep after a few pages. I know that feeling! It makes reading anything at the more challenging end of the spectrum very frustrating because you can easily lose the flow.

In this grave hour imgI have learnt my lesson and carve-out reading time for myself in the day. My bedtime reading is usually reserved for lighter books, entertainment. I have recently discovered the Maisie Dobbs series by British-American writer Jacqueline Winspear. I picked up In This Grave Hour whilst browsing at the local library. Set in London in 1939, at the time of the outbreak of World War Two, my principal interest in it was as background for a book I am currently working on. I ended up enjoying the book far more than I expected.

Maisie Dobbs is a private detective, working in London. She is titled, due to marriage, but hails from a humble background herself, though she clearly has many high level Establishment connections. Maisie is a widow, her husband having been killed in the First World War. There is clearly a sadness to her life, as there seems always to be with great literary detectives.

The mystery Maisie solves in this book concerns the violent murders of three Belgians, all of whom escaped Europe and the Nazis as they began to make their way across the continent. Maisie uncovers links between the incidents that the police have been unable to find. At the same time, war preparations are being made in London and children are beginning to be evacuated from the city, including to her own father and stepmother in Kent. Maisie finds herself particularly drawn to a young girl who goes to live with them, whose identity is unknown and who refuses to speak. Another, parallel, mystery that Maisie has to get to the bottom of.

Once I had got past my snobbery about the “this kind of book”, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was easy to read, a good story, competently written and with easy likeable characters. In This Grave Hour is the thirteenth book in the series, (the fourteenth was published earlier this year), and the author seems to have produced one a year pretty consistently. The first book is set, I believe, at the end of the First World War. It reminded me of a couple of books I have read in the past, the Kate Shackleton Mysteries by Frances Brody. Set in the 1920s, the heroine is a widowed private detective, based in Yorkshire. I read Murder in the Afternoon and Murder on a Summer’s Day, which I have reviewed on here, and enjoyed them both. There are nine Kate Shackleton books altogether.

So, if you’re looking for some light reading, for bedtime, or perhaps for a forthcoming holiday, I would recommend either Maisie Dobbs or Kate Shackleton. You could do a lot worse and you may actually find they keep you awake!

What is your recommended ‘light reading’?

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Film review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I was feeling a bit glum last week (two teenagers and one in training, need I say more?!) so I decided that an afternoon at the cinema with a feel-good movie was in order. I’d heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (hereafter shortened to The GLPPPS) on Front Row a few weeks ago and it sounded interesting. It is a really lovely movie, and there is much more to it than just “feel-good” with a bit of romance; it covers historical events about which I’m ashamed to say I knew very little, and it is very engaging.

Successful, beautiful young author Juliet Ashton appears to have it all; she lives in London, where she is planning to buy a new flat, which she can well afford from her fabulous authorly earnings, and is romantically involved with an American military officer, who wants to whisk her off to New York to be his wife. But a dark shadow looms over her existence and she knows there is something missing in her life. Bored with her book tours she accepts a commission from The Times to write an article when, out of the blue, she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, which intrigues her. He has by chance come across a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare with her name and former London address written in it. Her past home was destroyed in the War, and both her parents were killed, so the contact marks an emotional moment for her. In his letter, Dawsey writes briefly about the GLPPPS and asks if she might forward another book for the group to read (books were very difficult for them to get hold of when the Nazis occupied the island).

Juliet is intrigued, not only by the request, but also by the strange name of the Society. We have already learned a little of the Society’s origins – its five members were apprehended by a Nazi patrol after curfew after they had shared a roast pork dinner from an illegally concealed pig. At the time of the occupation, locals were forbidden to keep hold of their livestock as all meat was confiscated for the benefit of the German soldiers. As a result the islanders were nearly starved, hence living on delights such as Potato Peel Pie (“no flour, no butter, just potato peel”). The shared meal marks a connection and coming together for the five lonely individuals looking for some togetherness at a very dark time. The Society is ‘authorised’ by the Germans and they continue to meet. It becomes their lifeline. The instigator of the Society, Elizabeth McKenna, is the best friend of Jane, daughter of Amelia Maugery, another of the Society’s founding members.

Juliet decides to go to Guernsey to write about the Society and when she arrives she is immediately won over by their passion for literature, their humanity and their story. She tells them, naively, that she would like to write about them for her article in The Times and assumes they will be only too delighted to give her their blessing. Juliet encounters unexpected hostility, however, in particular from Amelia (played by the marvellous Penelope Wilton), who believes that Juliet, with her London ways, has merely come to gawp at these unsophisticated islanders and that she understands nothing of their lives.

Juliet is horrified that her new friends should be offended by her proposal and desires to dig a little deeper, to understand better and to uncover the truth about what they endured in the occupation. Thus, her weekend stay becomes indefinitely extended, much to the annoyance of Juliet’s fiance, Mark Reynolds. Juliet develops close relationships with other Society members Isola and, of course, the handsome Dawsey. She learns from them that Amelia has never recovered from the death of her daughter Jane, and the unborn child she was carrying, from German bombing at the time of the invasion. She also learns more about Dawsey’s young daughter Kit, and about what has happened to Elizabeth.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and I don’t want to spoil it. Multiple plot lines are maintained throughout, and the flashbacks to the origins of the Society and the events that befell them in the War are very well done. The dimension of Juliet’s engagement to her American lover, and her long-standing friendship with her protective publisher, provide interesting side stories.  It has a super cast, the characters are well-played, and the Guernsey scenery is stunning – I predict this film will do much for Channel Islands tourism!

Highly recommended and definitely improved my week!

If you get to see this film I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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Thoughts on writing a book #1

Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the UK today. TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are often at the top of the ratings tables and the largest family tree website Ancestry.com has almost 3 million paying subscribers worldwide and has access to 20 billion records in 80 countries. It is big business, for sure. Finding out where we have come from is a deep human need. Perhaps it helps us towards a better understanding of ourselves and what makes us tick. And as our world becomes ever more dynamic, busy and harder to navigate, that self-understanding becomes an important part of maintaining our identity, staying rooted

Scan0003
My Grandmother Rose, with my baby brother and I, 1971

Most of us will have done a basic family tree at some point in our lives. I did one at primary school and can remember interviewing my grandparents to find out about their parents and siblings. I actually dug out this juvenile work a few months ago when I started the research for a book I am currently writing. I am writing a novel about my grandmother. The working title is Finding Rose. She was born in 1910 into a very poor family in East London, the seventh of ten children. She had a very limited education, having developed a disability called benign essential tremor. She had a ‘shake’ all her life which meant she had very poor motor skills, never able to write for example. My father, her second child, was born in Hertford on 22nd December 1940 (maternity patients were moved out of London because of the Blitz), while her husband, Charles, lay dying from tuberculosis in a hospital in Kent. He died on 26th December, without ever meeting his son, my father. Rose never remarried, but had another child in 1943 and brought up her three children on her own, though with the help of her sisters, through the Second World War. Rose outlived all her siblings, dying in 1995 at the age of 85. Incredible when you think where she started. I hope I have inherited these robust East End genes!

1911 census
Could this be my great-Grandfather’s handwriting?

Through my internet research I have uncovered some incredible information about Rose and her family. I got a shiver when I saw a facsimile of the actual 1911 census form showing the composition of 1 year old Rose’s family home. But we need more than facts, dates of birth, addresses, marriage dates, etc. It is the textural information that I feel the lack of now – what was Charles, my grandfather, like? Where did he and Rose meet? How did Rose cope when she lost her husband? There is no-one left alive to answer these questions. My own father passed away in 2010 and my aunt and uncle are now elderly. My book will attempt to write Rose’s life. It will be necessary for me to make up most of it, so it will be my best guess at the life she had. I’m sure much of it will be the life I hope she had.

Your father's roomI have been reading a lot of fictionalised biography to help me and one book I read recently I found profoundly moving. Your Father’s Room by French writer Michel Deon is part fiction, part memoir, and looks back to 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Edouard, or Teddy, is the only child of a civil servant and his socialite wife. The family moves to Monte Carlo with the father’s job and there is a fascinating insight to life in the south of France at that time, the characters connected to the family and the nature of the relationship between Teddy’s parents. If this is an account in part of the author’s childhood then much of Teddy’s observations will have been imagined by Deon. Perhaps like me he is taking fragments of memory, partial facts and knitting them together to tell a story. It is very engaging even though it is not clear what is truth and what is fiction. How much of any of our family history is a story anyway, ‘facts’ that have been embellished (or concealed) over the years?

Your Father’s Room is a beautiful little book (under 100 pages) with a poignant ending, and Deon writes magnificently. The translation is extremely good. I’ve learned a lot from this reading about how I might approach my own book (and if my writing turns out to be even half as good as this, I’ll be delighted!) and filling in the gaps with my own imagination. I’m about 20,000 words in now, and am hoping to complete a first draft by Christmas.

Wish me luck!

I’d love to hear your experiences of family research. What have you uncovered?

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