Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

throughwoodsJust in time for Hallowe’en comes Canadian author Emily Carroll’s book, Through the Woods, a collection of chilling short stories. The stories would be quite enough on their own, but Carroll ups the ante with amazing art work. As far as graphic literature goes, Through the Woods goes to eleven. (Yes, yes I did just use a Spinal Tap reference.)

There are five stories in Carroll’s collection and each one of the stories feels vaguely old-fashioned. The monsters that live on these pages have been around for a very long time.

In the first story “Our Neighbor’s House,” Mary is left in charge of her two younger sisters, Beth and Hannah, while her father goes off to hunt. Their father tells them “I’ll be gone for three days…but if I’m not back by sunset on the third day, pack some food, dress up warm, and travel to our neighbor’s house.” When their father fails to return, things go from bad to worse in short order.

In the final story, “The Nesting Place, ” Bell, short for Mabel,  spends her school holidays with her older brother, Clarence, and his wife, Rebecca, at their isolated country house. Bell is a solitary child and she takes little interest in socializing with her brother. The only other person at the house is the housekeeper who warns Bell not to venture into the woods because she could easily become lost as Rebecca once had, “found three days later at the bottom of a cave…three days all alone in the dark drinking water out of a fetid pool to stay alive.” Rebecca, as Bell is soon to find out, has been deeply changed by that experience. And not in a good way.

woods

The stories between the first and last are every bit as unsettling. Dreams and teeth and blood and beasts loom large in this collection.Carroll’s illustrations are saturated with primary colours: blood-red moons and sapphire blue rivers. I don’t know much about art, but Through the Woods is a beautiful book to look at – if slightly macabre.

See more of Carroll’s work at her website.

 

 

Gentlemen & Players – Joanne Harris

gentlemenGentlemen & Players is an intricate mystery by Joanne Harris, an author probably best known for her best-selling novel, Chocolat. Before she made it big in the publishing world, Harris was a school teacher which probably came in handy while writing this story of a public (in Britain this is the equivalent of our private, thus you pay a tuition)  school in England. For readers unfamiliar with the British school system, the story will likely seem extra exotic. I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and dreaming about going to boarding school in the UK, so I was all over the notion of the tuck shop (the place to buy sweets) and copious gallons of tea consumed by the teachers.

The novel gets its name from cricket, another very British enterprise. A first class cricket match pitting a team of amateurs (the Gentlemen) against the professionals (the Players) is a throw back to the class system in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Players were the working class guys and the Gentlemen from the middle and upper classes.

Harris’s novel has two narratives taking place over two different time periods. In one we follow Roy Straitley, a Classics teacher at St. Oswald’s Grammar School. He’s been in the business for over three decades and is soon to be turning 65. (I was relieved to see that Mr. Straitley still enjoys teaching since I’ll be at least that old before I will be able to afford to retire.) Straitley has dedicated his adult  life to teaching at the school and prides himself on his ability to control his class and remember all the boys he’s taught over the years.

In the other narrative, an unnamed narrator watches St Oswald’s from the gatehouse where they live with their father, the school’s porter (aka custodian).

I understood at once that they were a different race to myself; gilded not only by sunlight and their proximity to that lovely building but by something less tangible; a slick of assurance; a mysterious shine.

Later, of course, I saw it as it really was. The genteel decay behind the graceful lines. The rot.

Fifteen years later, the narrator shows up at St. Oswald’s with forged credentials and begins to teach and all hell breaks loose. At first the pranks are minor, missing registers and pens, but before long things get serious and lives are ruined and lost.

Gentlemen & Players was an easy read (despite all the wacky names I had to keep straight). Does it have something to say about the haves and the have-nots? Not really, since the second narrator just seems jealous and, quite frankly, crazy. Will I be thinking about these characters in a week? Not likely. Was I shocked by the surprise? No, I figured it out. Careful readers will. Still, I passed a pleasant few hours reading the book and if you like suspense thrillers, this is well-written and fun – if you don’t think too long on all the novel’s implausibilities.

The Splendor Falls – Rosemary Clement-Moore

splendorClement-Moore’s novel, The Splendor Falls, contains several recognizable gothic characteristics including an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, an ancient prophecy, a heroine who experiences visions, and supernatural events (there’s ghosts galore). Sadly, the book is too long and too slow to add up to much that would be considered frightening.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie Davis is the “youngest-ever principal dancer for the American ballet” when she suffers a freak accident which ends her dancing career forever. Dancing is all Sylvie has ever known and the fact that she no longer can sends her into a tailspin of depression which is completely understandable. What is not understandable, however, is the fact that she starts to see things that she can’t explain. She starts to doubt her sanity and her mother, who has recently married a psychiatrist, decides to send her to her deceased father’s ancestral home in Alabama.

Sylvie and her purse dog, Gigi, arrive at Bluestone Hill, a plantation house which is currently being restored by her father’s cousin, Paula. It won’t take long for the reader to recognize the bit-players: the snotty daughter of Paula’s business partner, Clara; the golden-boy president of the Teen Council, Shawn; the mysterious and handsome, Rhys.

Sylvie is petulant about her circumstances. She doesn’t really know, Paula, and knows even less about her father’s childhood. It seems, though, that everyone in the small town knows her family. To make matters worse – she starts seeing things and hearing things.  The reader, by rights, should be creeped out right along with her. I can’t quite figure out why I wasn’t.

The Splendor Falls’ biggest problem is, I think, with pacing. At just over 500 pages, there just weren’t enough thrills and chills to keep the pages turning. The novel’s denouement, when it comes, doesn’t really live up to its potential.

I’d been really looking forward to this book. I loved the title and the cover and the promise of things that go bump in the night, but at the end of the day the book was more whimper than bang.

Let’s talk about books – on CBC radio!

I had an opportunity to share my thoughts about young adult fiction on CBC radio’s show, Information Morning. I hope it will be a regular gig because it was SO MUCH FUN. I had a whole big thing prepared – but eight minutes goes so fast and I didn’t have a chance to say everything that I wanted to say. You can listen to the segment here.

For the hell of it, I’ll include my prepared notes below:

**

Want to make an English teacher cringe? Talk about the declining number of teens who read for pleasure.

Sadly the number of young people who read for pleasure has been on the decline and as far as I can tell it’s because they’re reading Tumblr and Facebook and texts – or not reading anything at all. I also think that in school we often expect them to read things they just aren’t interested in. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I do have anecdotal evidence about the lack of interest in books. I sometimes feel like I am on a mission to connect students to books they’ll love. I’m not alone – lots of Language Arts teachers are trying to turn kids on to the love of reading.

The National Reading campaign identifies several benefits of reading including the fact that it is essential to the well-being of society and to our functioning as a democracy; it empowers critical thinking skills, lays the foundation of future learning; it increases individuals’ health and well-being. And those are all awesome reasons to read – but I tell my students that I read to know that I am not alone, to understand what it means to be human, to learn how to be more empathetic. Most importantly I read for pleasure (which is also on the list, by the way).

I’ve been a life-long reader. I’m going to date myself here, but I’m old enough to talk about The Bobbsey Twins…I value reading, partly because my parents valued it. My kids are readers because I am. They’ve been surrounded by books their entire lives. My home is filled with books and so is my classroom and I think one of the most important things I can do as a teacher is to connect students to books because I really believe that all it takes is one good reading experience to reignite that fire that has gone out in so many kids. That sounds totally evangelical, I know.

Okay – so I am going to get off my soapbox.

One of the best parts of my job is talking about books with my students. I LOVE it. I love pulling a book off the shelf and physically putting it in someone’s hand and saying “Read this.” I’ve got about 1000 books in my classroom, so it’s a very immediate thing. I read A LOT of (though not exclusively) YA/teen fic and there’s some great stuff out there…but there’s also some junk…it’s like comparing Stephanie Meyer to Joss Whedon (pop culture reference my students will get!) A quick survey always shows that most kids read when they were younger…and then it starts to drop off as they get older. I just have to remind them of why they used to love it. And I have to find them the right book.

What makes a great teen book? The same thing that makes a good adult novel. (And, by the way, I don’t subscribe to the notion that adults shouldn’t read YA fiction. There are some amazing YA writers that adults should check out and I’m going to talk about just three.)

Character – that’s true for any book, of course, but I think young readers want to see themselves reflected back to them; they want characters to care about and root for

Plot – not overly convoluted – although subplots are great, keep turning those pages; worlds they recognize and worlds they do not

Writing – obviously, although this is subjective…which is why some people love Twilight and others do not. To each his or her own.

A conversation with the student is always the way I start – what’s the last book you read? (Often times they haven’t read anything, but I have built in reading time in my class and so I insist they get back on the reading saddle.) What are you interested in? Are you a confident reader?

So today I thought I’d just talk about three books that invariably come back to me with a student stamp of approval. These aren’t necessarily new releases, but over the past few years they’ve been books that have been borrowed a lot so they’re definitely keepers.

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak, 2005

He’s an Australian writer and this book was originally intended – I believe – for adult audiences. It’s mostly touted as YA here – and I think teens would enjoy it, although they may find it a little slow to start. So it’s the story of Liesel Meminger.  Liesel is almost ten when she ends up in Molching with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, her new foster parents. It is 1939. In Nazi Germany. Death is personified and he’s the book’s narrator. Sometimes events are reported without comment – you forget Death’s there – other times Death weighs in on events. It might take some readers a bit to get used to. John Green – and voracious teen readers will know exactly who this guy is, called The Book Thief “brilliant and hugely ambitious.” Liesel is just a beautiful character; it is impossible not to fall in love with her. She literally steals books, the first one: The Grave Digger’s Handbook is stolen at her brother’s funeral. She doesn’t even know how to read. The Book Thief is about hope and sacrifice and love and family – all big ticket items. It’s also about the power of words and so of course I love it.

The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness, 2009 (part of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which also includes The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men); American writer who lives in Britain; also author of A Monster Calls and More Than This, both of which I highly recommend

It’s about a kid named Todd who is just about to turn 13 and when he does he’ll be a man. He lives in this place called Prentisstown, which strangely sounds like some town ripped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western…but it’s remarkable for a couple other reasons: there are no women and everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts. It’s dystopian. Then one day, Todd’s out with his dog Manchee (he can hear the dog’s thoughts, too – which is often pretty comical) and he suddenly hears…nothing. When he reveals that to the men who have been looking after him they tell him to run…and keep on running and, literally, all hell breaks loose. The second and third books are every bit as fantastic as the first and, in fact, I had a grade ten student burn through all three in about a week…and the fact that he loved them and talked about them encouraged a couple more kids to start and one girl to actually go out and purchase the first book. Yay!

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green- sold 6,000,000 worldwide – movie came out a few months ago

There’s probably not a teen out there who hasn’t read this book, but I am going to talk about it because I think all the moms and dads should read it, too. Kelley Armstrong was recently at Harbour View to talk to students. In case you don’t know who she is, she’s a Canadian writer of both adult and teen fiction – a best-selling writer. She was talking about trying to sell her first book, Bitten, which is about werewolves…and it was just sort of by way of explaining how publishing changes. She said that what publishers are looking for now is the next John Green. I love the guy. He’s super smart and super nerdy and The Fault in Our Stars is just one of those books that – yes, it’s a “disease of the month” book, but it not. Hazel Grace is seventeen and she has lung cancer which is being controlled by some drug (not real). She’s addicted to America’s Next Top Model – which tells you the state of her life. Her parents insist that she attend a cancer support group and so she does, reluctantly, and that’s where she meets Augustus. This book is driven by the magic that is Hazel and Augustus and it will make you laugh and cry and curl up in a ball sobbing hysterically at 3 a.m. Possibly all at once. My favourite book in 2012. Not just my favourite teen book…my favourite book.

The Blessings – Elise Juska

blessingsWe welcomed a new member into our book club last year and she hosted the first meeting after our summer hiatus. Elise Juska’s novel The Blessings was Margo’s selection and our discussion of the book – which I didn’t particularly enjoy while I was reading it – was certainly elevated by her superior hostessing skills. Oh, and okay, listening to the other women in my group talk about the book did soften me towards it. A bit.

The Blessings is the story of a large Irish-Catholic family in Philadelphia. You’d need a chart to untangle the siblings and cousins, the spouses and parents. There’s Gran and Pop; their children, John, Margie, Ann and Patrick and then the kids. Their story – played out over twenty years – isn’t really follow a linear narrative. Instead, Juska unfolds the story, or parts of the story, by allowing us to ‘visit’ with some of the family members.

For example, when the novel opens, eighteen-year-old Abby (daughter of Ann and Dave) is home from college for Thanksgiving. Through her eyes we see her aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. She reflects that “most people did not have families like hers.”  I would counter that everyone has a variation on a family like hers. Nevertheless,

If every family has a certain kind of music, Abby’s is the murmur of sympathy around a dining room table. It starts in the pause after dinner and before dessert, when the men migrate to the living room and turn on sports, and the women surround the wreckage, spilled crumbs and crumpled napkins and stained wineglasses. They pinch lids from sugar bowls and dip teabags in hot water, break cookies in half and chew slowly. They trade stories of other people’s hardships. This is the melody, the measure , of her family: the response to sad things.

The novel moves in and out of people’s lives, allowing us glimpses of failed relationships, eating disorders, love affairs, and deaths. For me, the narrative was too broken up to allow me to feel connected to any one of the characters. Just when I settled into the rhythm of their story, the chapter would end and we’d be on to the next person. Sometimes what had been happening would be alluded to later on, but we’d be hearing about the event from a completely different perspective. The Blessings was like reading a series of connected short stories.

Matriarch Helen (Gran) sums it up best:

The truth is that life in the end – even a long life – amounts to a handful of a very few things. The longer you live, the shorter the story.

The Blessings is a quiet story about family and if you’ve got one, you can probably relate to this book in some way.

Dare Me – Megan Abbott

daremeWe have cheerleaders at the high school where I teach, but they’re sure as hell not like the cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s compelling YA novel, Dare Me. These girls are vicious.

Addy Hanlon is the  narrator of this sordid tale.

There I am, Addy Hanlon, sixteen years old, hair like a long taffy pull and skin tight as a rubber band. I am on the gym floor, my girl Beth beside me, our cherried smiles and spray-tanned legs, ponytails bobbing in sync.

Her ‘girl’ is Beth Cassidy, an acerbic teen who spits out insults like bullets. Beth and Addy have been besties since they were young enough to “hang on the monkey bars, hooking [their] legs round each other.” Now they rule their school, part of a cheer squad that makes boys go weak in the knees and girls run for cover when they swagger down the hall, an impenetrable mass of venom.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to happen.

The social order of things is thrown into disarray, though, when the squad gets a new coach.

The New Coach. Did she look at us that first week and see past the glossed hair and shiny legs, our glittered brow bones and girl bravado? See past all the that to everything beneath, all our miseries, the way we all hated ourselves but much more everyone else? Could she see past all that to something else, something quivering and real, something poised to be transformed, turned out, made? See that she could make us, stick her hands in our glitter-gritted insides and build us into magnificent teen gladiators.

Colette French is demanding. On the second day she “takes a piece of Emily’s flab in her fingers” and tells her to “fix it.” The girls discover they can’t fluster her, that she is already bored with their nonsense. Then, Coach dismisses Beth as captain, saying that she doesn’t “see any need for a captain.”

Addy knows Beth’s response, when it comes, will change everything, and it does.

Dare Me is a riveting look at the world of girls on the cusp of adulthood and the woman who allows them a glimpse of what waits for them on the other side. There are no parents here, no sane adults to pull back the reins. Even Coach, who seems dazzling and perfect to the cheerleaders, is soon revealed as damaged and flawed. Addy is particularly taken with Coach and as their relationship morphs into something more intimate, Addy realizes she’s been “waiting forever, my palm raised. Waiting for someone to take my girl body and turn it out.”

I can’t express how  terrific this book is. The writing is dazzling; it was like a mouth full of pop-rocks, you know that candy that fizzes in your mouth? Watching Addy try to navigate her sixteenth year, despite the fact that the world of cheer-leading is totally alien to me, was a thing of horrible beauty.

Highly recommended.

The Reading Promise – Alice Ozma

readingpromiseAlice Ozma’s dad, Jim,  made a promise to his daughter: he’d read to her every single night for 1000 consecutive nights. When they reached that pretty impressive goal they extended “The Steak” which, ultimately,  lasted for nine years. Nine years! Ozma shares their  story in her memoir,The Reading Promise.

“Our rules were always clear and firm: we had to read at least ten minutes (but almost always much more) per night, before midnight, with no exceptions. It should come from whatever book we were reading at the time, but if we were out of the house when midnight approached, anything from magazines to baseball programs would do. The reading should be done in person, but if the opportunity wasn’t there, over the phone would suffice. Well, just barely.”

Reading is something that Alice’s dad clearly values and is passionate about. As a librarian/teacher at an elementary school, he believes in the research that clearly shows that reading aloud is  “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.”   But this nine-year reading “Streak” serves another very important purpose: as a single father, Jim is doing his best to spend quality time with Alice. His older daughter, Kathy, had announced when she was in grade four that she no longer wished to be read to. Alice is different.

The Reading Promise isn’t all about the books Jim and Alice shared. I found the book more interesting when Alice talked about the books, though. I laughed when Jim read Dicey’s Song to fifteen-year-old Alice, skipping over the parts he felt too embarrassed to read aloud. I admired Jim and Alice when they patched up small squabbles through reading together. Not even teenage hormones or adult frustration stymied their reading. I was as incensed as Alice was when the principals at both schools where Jim worked decided he should read no more than five minutes a day to his students, that he should, instead, teach them how to use a computer.

Ozma clearly had no notion that she’d be committing the story of “The Streak” to paper when she started her reading journey with her father. If her memoir suffers a little because of it, so what? Their commitment to reading and to each other makes for a lovely story.

Ten Tiny Breaths – K.A. Tucker

tentinybreaths“New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”[1] New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices,” says Wikipedia.

K.A. Tucker’s novel Ten Tiny Breaths ticks all the New Adult boxes. Protagonist Kacey Cleary’s life is irrevocably  altered at sixteen when her parents, best friend and boyfriend are all killed in a drunk driving accident. Kacey is spared and so is her younger sister, Livie. Flash forward four years and Kacey and her younger sister, who is now fifteen, have left their aunt and uncle’s home in Michigan and headed for Florida. They had to go: Kacey had seen the looks Uncle Raymond had been giving her sister.

So now Kacey and Livie are in Miami. They’ve got enough money to pay for a skanky apartment they found online (luckily their superintendent has a heart of gold). They move in and meet the stripper and her daughter who live next door (luckily the stripper has a heart of gold and also gets Kacey a good gig bar-tending at the club where the owner and all the bouncers have hearts of gold). Then Kacey meets the too-hot-to-be-believed guy who lives in the complex (also with a heart of gold…and a big ol’ secret).  So, yeah, New Adult, sure since there’s a teensy bit of not-very-graphic sex, some swearing and a main character in the 18-25 range…but none of her story is plausible. None. Of. It.

Okay – it’s completely believable that Kacey would be messed up after losing her parents.  Kacey had “spent a year in physical rehabilitation to repair her shattered body, only to be released with a shattered soul…sank into a world of drugs and alcohol for a year to cope…doesn’t cry, not a single tear.”  I get that. Kacey doesn’t like physical touch, that Livie’s hand is the only one she can hold because it “doesn’t feel dead.”

The problem with Ten Tiny Breaths isn’t the writing; it’s the plot and the characters – all of whom seem to have completely altruistic motives. Kacey’s messed up, no question. And sure, Post Traumatic Stress can do some wonky stuff…but the last third of the book is just overwrought and unbelievable and saccharine.

If you want to give the New Adult genre a try, I recommend you check out  Easy. That’s a New Adult novel with some meat on its bones.

 

 

Early Decision – Lacy Crawford

Early Decision PB

Here is what was going to happen: Anne was going to wake up one morning in full possession of the authority she needed to go out and start her life.

Anne Arlington hasn’t quite figured out what to do with her life, but while she figures it out  she acts as a consultant to parents hoping their (mostly) spoiled, coddled and rich offspring make it into the Ivy League. Even Canadian readers will know that the Ivy League is comprised of eight schools considered, by reputation and name, to be  academically excellent, selective, and socially elitist. For those who need a refresher, the  schools  are Brown, Columbia,  Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

Early Decision‘s author, Lacy Crawford, spent fifteen years working as just such a counselor, coaching parents and high school students through the highly competitive world of college applications and entrance essays. Although the names of the schools will be familiar, the process itself will be less so to Canadian students (unless they have made applications to American schools.) No matter, there’s a little something for everyone in Early Decision.

The novel follows Anne’s interactions with five of her students and their (mostly) helicopter parents. For five grand, she all but guarantees her students will get into the school of their (parent’s) dreams.  The interesting thing about Early Decision is that  the parents often don’t have a clue what their children actually want. These children are often merely an extension of their parents’ egos.

Anne isn’t that far removed from this process herself; she’s only 27. As she coaches her students through the essay writing process, she encourages them to consider what they really want for themselves. As a high school writing teacher, I particular appreciated Anne’s attempts to get the students as close to the truth of themselves as they could, to strive for an authentic voice.

And I don’t know whether it’s these students in particular or just where Anne happens to be in her own journey, but she finally gets the courage to make a change in her own life.

tlc tour hostEarly Decision was provided to me by the folks at TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review. I can honestly say that this is not a book I would have ever picked up on my own, but there’s a lot of great stuff here. The writing is terrific and Anne is a character who manages to see straight into the heart of the people she deals with, yet lacks the confidence to take her own life by the horns. Although the college application process isn’t quite as onerous here in Canada, Early Decision is a great book for people who are on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out what they want – juggling their dreams with those of their parents – and eventually figuring out what it means to be true to themselves.

 

 

 

The Birthing House – Christopher Ransom

Birthing_HouseConrad Harrison takes a wrong turn after leaving his father’s funeral and ends up in Black Earth, Wisconsin. He stops for food, glances at the paper someone left behind, and sees a listing for a house he decides to check out. When he goes to meet the real estate agent, Conrad had to admit that the house “made his heart beat faster.”

Faster than you can say “sold,” Conrad has bought the house. Then he returns home to Los Angeles to tell his wife Joanna. Except that when he gets home he discovers that Jo is not alone.

Christopher Ransom’s debut novel The Birth House is a lot of things, but sensical ain’t one of them. Okay, yes, I get it that Conrad was itching for change and that catching his wife with another guy (although not really) could certainly be impetus for said change, but he bought a house in a hick town without consulting his wife. Was it grief over the death of his father and the fact that he had a huge insurance cheque burning a hole in his pocket? The reader will never know because we never learn very much about his relationship with his dad other than he wasn’t around much. Clearly his relationship with Jo is at a crossroads because almost as soon as they move to Black Earth, Jo is head-hunted and takes a new job which requires her to leave for eight weeks of training.

That means Conrad is all alone in the house.  (Well, not completely alone; he has his dogs.)

Cue creepiness.

First there’s the guy who used to live in the house with his wife and kids, all of whom have birth defects.

Then there’s the book of the house’s history, delivered by its former owner. The book explains that the house used to be a birthing house, a place women went to have their babies, but it freaks Conrad out so much that he burns the book in the fireplace.

Then there’s the woman who appears at night.

And something weird is happening with Conrad’s snakes. (Yes, he keeps snakes except that they seem more like a convenient plot point than an actual thing that could potentially escape and wreak havoc.)

And let’s not forget about the mind-blowing orgasms Conrad has in his…sleeps? dreams?

As if that’s not enough, Conrad has a back story involving a girl called Holly and while his wife is away he befriends the nineteen-year-old daughter of his next door neighbours who just happens to be pregnant.

Conrad just keeps getting dumber and dumber. And so does the book.

Blech.

 

 

 

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