Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Review of ‘Bretherton, khaki or field grey?’ By WF Morris

December 27, 2018

I have no idea, now, how I came across this rather peculiar book. It is one of the Casemate classic war fiction series.

It is set in the first world war, a period which I know to be a period of poetic flourishing, but had always assumed to be rather under-represented by fiction.

W F Morris first published this book in 1929, and it reads very much as though he was there. Indeed, I cannot remember having read a book of prose in which the way of life at the front is so vividly depicted. No Mans’ Land, the minor and major forays across that blasted ground, the barrages, the spotter plans, the strafing, the Verey lights, the landscape – grass and tree and cottage – torn to shreds; the comparative comfort of a billet behind the front lines, the calm acceptance of a duty to be done. What is not in the book is the sort of condemnation of the war that one finds in the later WWI poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Blunden and others. A task is being performed as well as possible by men who maintain a sense of humour and drink a lot of scotch. It is surprising, perhaps, how believable that is. Or perhaps it is not surprising at all.

The plot of the novel is complex and to hint, even, is to give too much away. Suffice it to say that this reader believed three times that the denouement had arrived when it had not. The book meanders through the story in an apparently random way, which is actually cunningly crafted so that every time one thinks, ‘Ah! So that’s when/how/why …’ it actually isn’t. Morris put together a fine mystery in 1929 and told it beautifully. It has stood the changes of fashion in fiction remarkably well, and certainly merited unearthing and reprinting in this current Casemate series in 2016. Although Casemate might have made a better fist of proofing the last third of the book. Most of the errors are just little irritants, but on a few occasions they lead to puzzles for the reader.

If you are interested in WWI I recommend this to you without reservation. Despite the proofing errors, holistically it is a really interesting and well written novel.


Review: ‘The Naples of England’ by Andy Christopher Miller

December 13, 2018

The Naples of England: Andy Christopher Miller by [Miller, Andy]This is a most interesting memoir of a Baby Boomer growing up in Weymouth, Dorset. Miller was born ‘at the beginning of a New Age. 1946. The world had been scoured, scorched and cleansed at a terrible cost. Chance had chosen me and my generation to be its most fortunate beneficiaries.’ I also believe that to be so. These days we tend to forget how very far from that sort of childhood technology and consumerism have brought us, so it is good to remember those endless days when we were, grubbily, in and of the world around us. I remember similar incidents in my own girlhood. Here are the events that remain in the memory when much has been crowded out by the accumulations of adulthood. Some are of important events, some are quirkier.

This is the sort of book that many people intend to write, even if only for their descendants. Miller had the sense to start collecting information for his before all his sources were gone. Although the memories are vividly those of a lad between 8 and 16, the surrounding detail must have been helped immensely by input from his parents.

Miller is not afraid to dig deeply into his memories. He finds some which are poignant, others which show him in a less favourable light. He is an honest author with a broad palette with which to colour his childhood.

The story of his grandfather creating a ship in a bottle is a delight. We learn with him what he might want to be when he grew up, how he discovered a lifelong enthusiasm for rock-climbing, of endless summer days on a beach so full of holidaymakers it was difficult to find your way back to your own encampment if you went to get an ice-cream, of doing bed and breakfast (in defiance of the tenancy agreement) in a house already stuffed full of family, of comic books and bitterns. He speaks of a trip to  Chesil Beach and being awed by the power of the roiling water. He relates how he and others from his school walked fifty miles to show the Headmaster what they were capable of. He writes of the first long-haired youngsters (‘Mohairs’’) arriving in Weymouth and the explorations of philosophy and literature they initiated in him. Then there were UCCA forms and suggested sandwich courses and – at last – a light bulb moment of What To Do When I Grow Up. And, finally: London.

All the names and places have been renamed. Folk living in and around Weymouth will have fun identifying the places he talks about from the geography he describes on his way from here to there.

There is a final chapter which deals with memories from his parents which sets him back on his heels. Two incidents occurred before he was old enough to retain any memory of them himself. But both are huge. And neither was ever spoken of within the family. Miller discusses what he comes to know of the events and one feels his dismay and his need to set this down, so that the people concerned are not forgotten.

**I received a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review**



Review – ‘The Book of Dust, Vol 1: “La Belle Sauvage”‘ by Philip Pullman

December 8, 2018

We have been waiting 22 years for more about Phillip Pullman’s steam-punk world, where every human is accompanied by a totem animal. Is it worth the wait? Yes. If you haven’t read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy to which this is a prequel I think you will manage fine. I would say start here, except that we are currently two books short of the promised set, which will leave you with gaps to the more demanding, later trilogy. ‘Dust’ was being researched enthusiastically as a major theme in those books. Dust begins to be explored in this prequel. All the books are set  in a kind of parallel, steam punk, world to our own, so they have not aged in the 22 years in the way that their readers (sadly) have.

Philip Pullman writes so warmly about his child protagonists. This is partly because every soul on earth comes in two complementary parts, so no-one is ever truly alone. The soul, or perhaps conscience, is in the form of an animal daemon. Human and daemon are always in complete harmony and close proximity. Terrible anguish results if they are separated. No right-thinking person in Pullman’s world would dream of hurting one (although, not all the characters in this book are right-thinking). In children the daemon can change form at will in response to circumstances or emotions. Around puberty the form hardens. Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard: the daemons of servants are always dogs.

Another warmth-imparting theme is food. Malcolm Polstead, the youthful hero, has a mother who is a kick-ass cook. She cooks for her husband’s inn, and she cooks all that good stick-to-your-ribs stuff that we Baby Boomers remember: pies and roly-poly pudding, spotted dick and thick aromatic stews with dumplings. Quite what modern youngsters will make of all this carbohydrate and red meat I cannot imagine.

A further strand is Pullman’s desire to point up the best in people who march to the beat of a different drum and are marginalised by society’s movers and shakers. His marvellous flights of imagination enable him to meld witches, gypsies, river gods, children, academics and magicians within a surprisingly ‘normal’ steam punk existence.

The final thread is a flood of biblical proportions, which sweeps through Oxford and the surrounding countryside. Oxford locals will, no doubt, enjoy this fictional flood to this which actually occur on the water meadows. The story becomes a chase as the protagonists are swept away by it. Great evil is felt, great grief is experienced. Enormous courage is shown. The god of the river shows himself.

Because of the warm world Pullman evokes, those who seek to destroy it immediately come across as cold. Pullman is known for his antipathy to organised religion, and there is a very cold thread indeed which draws on that. Pullman doesn’t seem to have much time for politics or science either. But he certainly seems to believe in evil.

The unwanted baby, Lyra Belacqua (the heroine of the later trilogy), has been placed with a convent. However, the child soon becomes the target of several different kidnap enterprises. Only young Malcolm (who has formed an attachment to the baby) seems to have the sort of gumption which can prevail against the various clever, well-organised parties seeking to capture Lyra. If I were to set his actions down here they wouldn’t, perhaps, seem so heroic – but he is a true hero who simply keeps going until the job is done.

This is an easier read than the previous trilogy, despite the length (it is a meaty 546 pages in hardback). The threads carry the reader clearly through the story. I wasn’t quite convinced by the motivation of Gerard Bonneville, but he does make a splendid and hideous villain. Matters which never were really explained in the later trilogy are, finally, set up in this one.

Suffice it to say that I have read deep into the night, night after night, to know how this story unfolds and then resolves. It is a tale as full of matter as one of Mrs Polstead’s mouth-watering pies.

This would make a special gift for Christmas.

Review : ‘The Lost Letters of William Shakespeare: The Undiscovered Diary of His Strange Eventful Life and Loves’ by Terry Tamminen

November 17, 2018

I was provided with a complimentary e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Lost Letters of William Shakespeare: The Undiscovered Diary of His Strange Eventful Life and Loves by [Tamminen, Terry]

This is a fascinating project.

I perhaps should announce an interest up front, in that I am a Shakespeare fan – I have even performed in a few myself as an amateur. And not only of the plays but also of his life and times.

How you receive this book may depend on whether you believe that these are lost letters, written by Shakespeare. Other reviewers say that they don’t care if the letters are genuine or not, and have found this book a way into Shakespeare and his language – and that is something that can only be applauded. Which I do.

The book is well written, with a few odd spellings perhaps unavoidable when an American takes on Elizabethan English. Either Shakespeare or his editor, Tamminen, is very fond of commas, which bespatter some of the longer sentences to the point where one has negotiate stepping stones of phrases and sub-clauses.

The preamble to the book, dealing with how the lost letters came into the author’s possession, is very interesting and gambols along. The illustrations, glossary and dramatis personae of Shakespeare’s life are a helpful support to the letters.

Of the letters themselves, much is promised and, indeed, much is delivered. There are 16 letters, each prefaced, engagingly, by Tamminen. All the letters are long. To the extent that this is a book of 546 pages. One wonders where on earth Shakespeare found the time and writing perquisites to write at such length. Lack of television was, presumably, key… This reviewer found some of the material (whisper it soft) a little dull. There is no plot of course – no beginning, middle and end. This is not a novel. Nor is it a play (which is how we are most used to experiencing Shakespeare). Life happens and is relayed to Shakespeare’s ‘coz’, and thence to us, in these 16 epistles. As Elizabethan English never uses a short phrase where a long one will serve, it is perhaps unsurprising that there could be longeurs.

This is a first tranche of the letter cache: more volumes are promised. What is in this book covers three years between 1586 and 1589: Shakespeare has written a few sonnets but has not yet written a play, although he has doctored several.

To escape problems at home in Stratford, he joins a band of travelling actors (‘Leicester’s Men) as their Jack of all trades and over the course of these early letters becomes interested in acting as a profession for himself. He discusses the times: amongst other things the necessity to be seen to espouse the right religion and the prevalence of plague in town and countryside. A wild scheme to make money and pay off his father’s debts is a running thread through the letters. He falls in love and berates himself for cheating on his wife and children. There is an intriguing revelation about why he married Anne Hathaway.

The letters add to what is known of Shakespeare’s life, filling in a number of the well-publicised gaps in his life story, and prefiguring material in sonnets and plays to come when Shakespeare hits his writing stride.

Is it true? Read it and make up your own mind.

Review of ‘Tizita’ by Sharon Heath

August 25, 2018

**  Review originally prepared for Big Al & Pals. Received a free review copy  **

Genre: Literary fiction     

Description: Amazon’s blurb says “Physics wunderkind Fleur Robins, just a little odd and more familiar with multiple universes than complicated affairs of the heart, is cast adrift when her project to address the climate crisis is stalled. Worse, her Ethiopian-born fiancé Assefa takes off right after her 21st birthday party to track down his father, who’s gone missing investigating Ethiopian claims to the Ark of the Covenant. … Assefa’s reconnection with a childhood sweetheart leads Fleur to … a bumbling encounter with her rival. The experience of tizita – the interplay of memory, loss, and longing – [flings] Fleur into conflicts between science and religion, race and privilege, climate danger and denial, sex and love … with humor, whimsy, and the clumsiness and grace of innocence.

Author: Amazon vouchsafes “Sharon Heath writes fiction and non-fiction exploring the interplay of science and spirit, politics and pop culture, contemplation and community. A certified Jungian Analyst … and faculty member of the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, she … has [inter alia] given talks … on topics ranging from the place of soul in social media to gossip, envy, secrecy, and belonging. She blogs at Which is all to say that she knows whereof she writes. Her breadth of knowledge about all manner of things is astonishing. She has the magpie eye of the true writer.

Appraisal: This is an extraordinary book. It is so stuffed with ideas that they overflow. There is a curiosity about the world in all the vibrant characters who inhabit the book. I learned much (as you know, I do like to finish a book feeling that I have done so) about physics, philosophy, religions (various), Ethiopia, Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimp sanctuary, the odd way humans behave toward each other and (not the least just because I’ve put it last) climate change. Read it to be amazed and informed as well as royally entertained. (Some of the word choices are exquisite.) Along the way Heath discusses racism, rape, female circumcision and abortion in the present day through her characters’ experience of these. There is plenty of sex. There is also plenty of mild self-harm (if self-harm can ever be mild).

Do not be put off by (but be prepared for) descriptions of everything a character’s eye lights upon (the descriptions are always vivid). There is also rather too much harking back to the first book about Fleur Robins (The History of my Body). There is both not enough to make what happened in the first book meaningful for someone who has not read it, and too much of it for Tizita to carry without it becoming burdensome. These interpolations interfered with pace from time to time. This strategy also threw up that Fleur’s life (physics project apart) seemed to have been marking time for the five years between The History of my Body and Tizita.

FYI:   a few f*ck-bombs, plenty of sex, description of rape, female circumcision, and self-harm; discussion of abortion and racism.

Review: ‘The Slant Six’ by Christopher F Cobb

August 24, 2018

** Review originally prepared for Big Al & Pals. Received a free review copy **

Genre: Sci-fiThe Slant Six by [Cobb, Christopher]

Description: The Slant Six was a Semi-Finalist in the Florida Writer’s Association Royal Palm Literary Awards, presumably in 2017.

The book blurb says “The year is 2252 and Loman Phin is in trouble. A washed-up channelship racer turned freelancer, he hits pay dirt with his latest mission: a fortune is on the line if he can transport forty-three kilograms of human skin to a remote villa on Pluto’s moon, Nix. Little does he know his very life is at stake when he gets caught up in an ancient feud, chased by a space vampire, and forced into a death-race by the king of Ceres. Meanwhile, danger is always hot on his heels in the form of a massive space freighter out for Loman’s blood. With just his wits, his friends, and his beat-up cruiser, the Slant Six, Loman sets out on the most dangerous adventure of his life.”

About the author: Christopher Cobb set out to be an actor. That didn’t go so well, so he returned to Florida, did a degree in Social Science and Ethnic Studies, and now works as a Marketing Specialist for the Palm Beach County Film and TV Commission. He lives in Jupiter, lucky man (work it out). He is published by Florida-based Darkwater Syndicate who say they are ‘the publishing company with a defense contractor’s name … We refuse to be mainstream. Our authors are not afraid to push boundaries and buck trends.’ This is his second novel.

Appraisal: The Slant Six is a dashing space opera which rushes headlong from disaster to disaster. There is hardly a space opera trope which hasn’t been lovingly plundered to add to the mayhem. Cobb’s language is a sort of space opera patois which I have never come across before. Most appropriate. The plot is derivative but the story is told with such immense energy it outstrips its well-known origins. Cobb is good with dialogue and action (his actor background stands him in good stead) and he keeps the whole crazy ride just about on course.

Death is not an absolute in this book. People are more or less dead at various points. They quite often don’t stay that way. Sadly, the people one wishes could become less dead are usually the people who are dead for good. The right things happen to the right people by the end, but the ending is not a happy one (although it is complicated). Stick with it.

As people often say about a book which is very visual, this would make a good film. It begs to be Spielberged. If you enjoyed Stars Wars I – III you will enjoy this.

Almost every qualifier in the book is a bodily function. There is a lot of ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’ sex (without the thank you). There are some proper female characters, but most of the women in the book are described as whores and bitches most of the time. If that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, read on.


Review of ‘The Labyrinth of Osiris’ by Paul Sussman

August 8, 2018

The Labyrinth of Osiris by [Sussman, Paul]

This is a tremendous read. It is a whopping 744 pages long and after that there is a useful 20 page glossary. (Had I known it was there I might have referred to it during my reading of the book. It is not essential, but it is interesting.)

If you have an interest in Egyptology, and the modern Middle East (specifically Egypt and Israel) then this book was written for you. If you enjoy Dan Brown’s books but have no specific interest in the Middle East I believe you will still enjoy the ride.

Sussman’s grasp of the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem and Luxor, and elsewhere in Egypt and Israel, and their factions (Copts and Druze to name but two) is both wise and deep. Using that understanding, and his professional expertise in archaeology, he has woven this vast, labyrinthine book. His plotting is assured, his characters varied and complex. He leads the reader through his 744 pages without one ever losing one’s place in the scheme of things.

As the plot blossoms connections are made which span decades, then centuries. Eventually, what looked at first like a single murder in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem has grown to include a slew of bodies and an international conspiracy. The two main protagonists – Jewish policeman Alieh Ben-Roi and Egyptian policeman Yusuf Khalifa – have private lives filled with trouble. Indeed, trouble is everywhere: wells are poisoned, people get lost in life-threatening terrain. Politically, trouble is never far away either. Nevertheless, the Muslim and the Jew work well together, as they did in an earlier book by Sussman (which you don’t need to have read in order to enjoy this).

Sussman sets the book in 2012, the year he sadly died. Although 2012 is now six years in the past, and Middle Eastern politics are as fluid as water, many of the antagonisms in the region are as old as Abraham. I felt I had learned something about the ways of the Middle East from the reading of this book. I also learned plenty about Ancient Egypt (long an interest of mine). But the main grist of the book is a fascinating thriller.

Sussman only wrote four novels (plus one finished by other hands and published posthumously). His death (of an aneurysm at the age of 45) is a loss to the ‘history and mystery’ genre. This is work of superior quality. I read a lot in the genre and I have not come across a book as well written or plotted as this before.

‘Dropping Out: a tree change novel-in-stories’, Danielle de Valera

May 27, 2018


**originally prepared for Big Al & Pals indie review site: received a free copy**

Genre: linked short stories     Dropping Out: a tree change novel-in-stories by [de Valera, Danielle]

Description: these stories tell episodes in the lives of a number of people who moved to the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales in Australia as a result of the Aquarius Festival held in Nimbin in 1973. De Valera moved to the area in 1977. She writes about what brought these people to Murwillumbah, why they stayed, why they left, why they came back again. She draws beautiful pictures of the beauty and the hardships of life in this remote area at a time when almost all its traditional means of making a living were dead or dying. The stories cover 35 years.

And then there is the final story. More of that one anon.

Author: Danielle de Valera has had a chequered career, raising her family whilst working variously as a botanist, an editor, a cataloguer for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries Library and the John Oxley Library, and on the main floor of Arnott’s biscuit factory. She is best known for her short stories, which have appeared in diverse publications including Penthouse, Aurealis and Australian Women’s Weekly. Some of these linked stories were first published in that way. And you can buy several of them as standalones on Kindle.

Appraisal: I loved these stories. I loved the cover too. There is a sense of being out of time, in a rugged, basic Narnia which people found, loved, then stayed. They flee from it from time to time when life there gets too hard, but they return as well because it has a siren call. Life there has simple attractions. If you have an issue with the law, this is a place to hide. If you ARE the law, and need a change of pace, it’s good too. If you don’t want to pay taxes, or have people telling you what to do, or just need some peace, this is the place for you.

If you asked one of your parents to tell you stories of ‘the old days’, you’d hear a lot of different stories about the people your mum (or dad) was friends with. You’d probably think about what might’ve happened to those people in between stories. In the end you’d come to know the people in the stories really well. So well that you’d ask mum to tell you another story about Star or God or Baby in Murwillumbah. That’s what this book is like. When I finished it I kept thinking about the characters in it, wondering what they got up to in the interstices when de Valera wasn’t writing about them. I can’t remember the last book that had this effect on me: it will certainly repay rereading.

The stories are told with great pace and verve. They are gritty and poignant. The whole is leavened with wit and humour.

The final story is a problem. It is set 120 years in the future, so is out of sync with everything else. I found that hard to adjust to. It is about different characters (unsurprisingly) and isn’t about the descendants of the earlier stories either, as far as I can tell (although there is an Azure in the earlier stories and an Azuria in the last one, for reasons I couldn’t unpick). The society it sketches has gaps where more information would have helped (eg why were the artificial people created? why the wings?) but includes information dumps about pipe tobacco and bottles of stout that seemed to have little relevance to the plot. I felt deflated and puzzled by the story. It has cost the book a star, sadly.

(I should tell you I have no idea what a ‘tree change novel’ is.)

Review: ‘Thirty Poets Go to the Gym by George Szirtes’ (Candlewick Press, 2018)

March 19, 2018

There are three reasons for getting hold of this delightful little volume.

The first is to enjoy thirty completely fresh, amuse-bouche of George Szirtes’ poetry. His facility with words, rhyme, metre, cadence, assonance, consonance is masterful. This is always so with his poetry. But for this collection he is speaking with the voices of others – and he captures those others beautifully.

Which leads on to reason the second: if there are poets amongst those treated in this book that you do not know, this little volume will introduce you to them most engagingly. I had never come across George Herbert before so was particularly entranced by the concrete example (a poem created in the shape of a pair of barbells – a recurrent image in the collection, unsurprisingly) of his seventeenth century style.

I particularly liked the e.e. cummings and the Emily Dickinson pastiches (being both poets that I much enjoy, but occasionally feel are a teensy bit pretentious too): both had me laughing out loud. To name but a few of the others treated, Sylvia Plath and Rainer Maria Rilke are here; also Dante and William McGonagall. But my personal favourite is the Edith Sitwell. If you have never heard William Walton’s Façade, with Sitwell bellowing her poems through a megaphone over the music, then you really, really must remedy that. In the meantime treat yourself to this Sitwell-ese. If possible, bellow it – through a megaphone is ideal (it brings out the rhythm). There isn’t a dud in this collection. And there is even an engaging little coda.

Oh, wait – I said there were three reasons for getting hold of this collection. The third is the completely gorgeous little book in which the poems are contained. The paper is thick and creamy, the cover feels delightful in the hand. The design is restrained and classy. It begs to be given as a gift.


‘Nothe Fort and beyond: in defence of Weymouth & Portland’, (2017) by Susan Hogben

March 19, 2018

Weymouth loves its local history. Books about aspects of it abound. I reviewed another of them recently (Philip Browne’s The Unfortunate Captain Peirce …). Those I have read are characterised by meticulous research and a love of quirky detail. So it is with this book on the creation of Nothe Fort.

The author, Susan Hogben claims this is ‘history that’s not just for historians’, which I think is bang on. Although these days woe betide the historian who attempts to get away with a dry book! Hogben has done the hard work (the research) so you don’t have to. And the result is anything but dry. She has immense affection for the area in general and Nothe Fort in particular. She has a goodly knack for seeing parallels between the era in which it was built and the present day (such as escalating costs, grumbling locals, lack of amenities for summer visitors, bust-ups in the Council chamber) which all sound very familiar.

Hogben has delved into all manner of public and private records for her story and tells it with enthusiasm, interesting segues, vignettes of human suffering and achievement, and plenty of amusing asides. Hogben’s knowledge is worn lightly and the writing style is popular: the saga gallops along (rather more quickly than the construction of the Fort, it must be said).

There is some colourful preamble to the building of the Victorian fort, which skips through the episodes of pirates and privateers, the Civil War, George III’s love of Weymouth and its resultant popularity. Then we arrive at the original reason for south-facing coastal defences being deemed A Good Idea: the French. Relations between France and the United Kingdom blew hot and cold long after Napoleon’s final defeat.

Hogben explains the prodigious role of the Royal Engineers in the construction of the fort. Nothe headland and its adjacent coasts are soft and prone to land slips. Trying to create a fort which would stay where it was put (on top of the cliff) and be strong enough to mount a shore-based battery of guns, which kept increasing in size as technology improved, was no easy task. And became increasingly expensive. That Victorian engineers were able, in the end, to build a thing of strength and beauty on the site and enable local folk to continue to use it for pleasure, piloting and weather watching, is a testament to common sense and co-operation.

Because of the ongoing building works undertaken by the army, there was a constant coming and going of soldiers during the years of the fort’s construction. In the main Weymouth’s citizens were glad of them. They provided husbands, a steady income for publicans, entertaining military bands and an extraordinary number of amateur dramatic shows. I have often been heard to mutter ‘what is it with British men and cross-dressing?’ when confronted with Monty Python, Dick Emery, Les Dawson et al. I believe Hogben has the answer: military amdram. Many soldiers stationed in Weymouth were or became skilled performers. In periods of idleness for the military (of which there were a surprising number) occupation of this kind was encouraged. And, of course, only one gender was available to take part. I understand now where that peculiarly unlovely, generic type of shrew was born which insisted, ‘he’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy’ …

The story so far ends with ‘Palmerston’s Follies’ considered obsolete following the defeat of France in 1871. But Nothe Fort and its sister, Verne Citadel, on Portland do come into their own. That story is, I understand, to be told in a second volume, to which I look forward very much.

I was provided with a proof copy for the purpose of this review. It contains a number of typos, occasional inaccuracies and some malaprops. Hopefully these have been rectified in the published edition.

You can obtain a copy of the book here: Nothe Fort and Beyond


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