Saturday, January 30, 2016

January Site Update

The previous nine book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (Stephan Pastis)

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made
(The Timmy Failure series, Book 1)
Stephan Pastis
Candlewick Press
Fiction, YA Humor
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Young Timmy Failure may look like any ordinary grade-schooler (albeit one with a distinctive scarf), but he's actually the greatest detective in the city, and possibly the world. With Total, a polar bear who came looking for food after his habitat melted and wound up becoming a junior partner, he runs his detective agency out of his mother's closet. Sure, his grades and social life suffer, but one cannot be bothered with minor annoyances like homework and schoolbooks and making friends when one has a multimillion-dollar business to build. Then the Failuremobile - better known as Mom's Segway - goes missing, leading to Timmy's biggest case as he discovers a dangerous rival stalking his every move.

REVIEW: With similar twisted humor to Pastis's Pearls Before Swine comic strip (including many illustrations by "Timmy"), this looked like a fun little adventure. Timmy's imagination inflates ordinary occurrences into conspiracies worthy of Fox Mulder and the X-Files, while completely ignoring more obvious (and sometimes troubling) problems. There's more going on than he's aware of, hints that the reader (especially the adult reader) picks up on. Mostly, the plot involves Timmy creating his own problems, then exacerbating them through repeated misunderstandings and blunders and grandiose would-be schemes... a formula that grows a little stale when it becomes clear that Timmy's talents are as imaginary as half (or significantly more) of his deductions. It has some fun moments and truly hilarious illustrations, with plenty of messed-up characters and downright bizarre situations. I don't see myself following the series further, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chomp (Carl Hiaasen) - My Review
Pearls Before Swine: BLTs Taste So Darn Good... (Stephan Pastis) - My Review
A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired The Hilarious Classic Film (Jean Shepherd) - My Review

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The One And Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)

The One And Only Ivan
Katherine Applegate
Fiction, YA General Fiction
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: For over two decades, Ivan the gorilla has lived at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. It's a peaceful life, if sometimes a dull one, but he has his tire swing, his TV, and his art, plus the steady stream of "slimy chimps" who visit daily. He also has his friends: Stella the elephant, veteran of a circus until an injury sidelined her, and Bob the stray dog who sneaks into his cage each night, not to mention the human girl Julia, the only one to see the images in his "scribbles." Then Mack, owner and ringmaster of the Big Top, brings in the baby elephant Ruby. For the first time, Ivan sees his domain for the cage it is... but what can one gorilla hope to do about it?

REVIEW: I remember the tale of the real Ivan, a gorilla kept in a local circus-themed shopping mall for decades until shifting public attitudes and outcry got him the "retirement" he desperately needed. Applegate necessarily fictionalizes some elements here, not simply by giving Ivan a "voice," creating a deceptively simple tale of good intentions gone awry and humanity's blindness to the needs of our fellow creatures. But, then, humans aren't the only ones blinded by willful ignorance over what seemingly can't be changed. It's only by witnessing tragedy in others that Ivan realizes his own sadness, and determines to change at least one thing about his life. The characters all have hidden facets, even Mack, making what could've been a flat story into something much more poignant and nuanced. It reads fast, but invites rereading. Touching, often sad and occasionally frustrating, it nevertheless shows what can happen when just one person - human or animal - stops giving in to despair and apathy and dares to hope for something better.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling) - My Review
Animal Wise (Virginia Morell) - My Review

Friday, January 22, 2016

Song of the Summer King (Jess E. Owen)

Song of the Summer King
(The Summer King Chronicles, Book 1)
Jess E. Owen
Five Elements Press
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In ages past, the Vanir gryphons of the Silver Isles lived in peace with the wolves and other animals... until the Aenir came. The invaders conquered the smaller Vanir, slaying and exiling their warriors and taking their gryphesses and nests. As for the kits of the pride, as per gryphon tradition, all were slaughtered - save one.
Shard knows nothing of the Vanir ways, and cares little to learn; after all, the Aenir look only forward to the future, not back to the dead and the lost. It's bad enough that he bears their drab feathers among the brighter Aenir, the unmistakable mark of a conquered, weak race. Even as wingbrother to Kjorn, son of the red king Sverin, he's always been seen as different. Shard almost expected Sverin to exile him rather then let him join in the initiation Hunt on the island of the wolves; given the chance to prove himself, he's especially eager to show his worth to the pride. But something unusual happens that day, an encounter with the island's wolves that wakes long-lost memories. His Vanir heritage calls to him, even as Sverin grows more restless and ruthless. Can he ever prove himself worthy of a place in the Silver Isles pride, or does he have a greater destiny - one that might restore peace, or destroy everything he's ever loved?

REVIEW: I'll be honest; but for the appeal of the gryphons, I might've passed this one by. Many of the elements looked tiresomely familiar: the last son of a noble race, the conquerors from across the seas, the riddles and secrets hidden in old songs, a prophecy in dire need of fulfillment, and so forth. But I was in the mood for a light fantasy, and there were gryphons. (The fact that the eBook was offered for a discount didn't hurt, either.) Somehow, all those familiar puzzle pieces click together into something surprisingly pleasant, if still occasionally predictable. I enjoyed the world Owen created, a world of Norse-influenced gryphon lore and talking wolves and other wonders and secrets that make the Silver Isles spring to life in the mind's eye. The gryphons act like gryphons, creatures of sky and land, and not just humans in suits. As for the characters, most of them aren't so shallow and predictable as they might seem at first blush. Shard struggles between his heritage as a Vanir and the secret strengths it might grant him and his upbringing in the Aenir pride, where he has family and friends and love. He clings a little long to his loyalty to the king, but he does learn, and isn't led around by the beak; his decisions, when he makes them, are his own, for better or worse. Characters around him go through transformations, too, for better or worse. Tensions build across the Silver Isles, many fueled by old rivalries and prejudices festering beneath the surface, until the great climax where Shard must decide who and what he is. Naturally, as the first book of a series, some elements are left dangling at the end, but the conclusion is fairly satisfying, even as it tempts one to look for the second book. In the end, I'm satisfied, and very glad I gave it a chance. Now I have to decide if my wallet and schedule can accommodate Book 2...

You Might Also Enjoy:
Warriors: Into the Wild (Erin Hunter) - My Review
Dark Lord of Derkholm (Diana Wynne Jones) - My Review
The Book of Gryphons (Joe Nigg) - My Review

Monday, January 18, 2016

Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne)

Let Them Eat Shrimp
Kennedy Warne
Island Press
Nonfiction, Nature
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 2004, a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean devastated coastal cities and killed more than 200,000 people... deaths due in part to the stripping of coastal mangroves for shrimp farms and other developments. It highlighted the cost of an ongoing environmental disaster that only scientists and local communities seemed to know or care about, one that takes on new urgency as we reach a tipping point in climate shift. The author travels around the world to view firsthand the price of mangrove destruction to wildlife, local economies, and people - and finds a few small slivers of hope for the future.

REVIEW: Like any book about the environment these days, it can't help but be a downer. Warne's travels bring him into contact with the many people with a personal stake in mangrove preservation, from various scientists to native villagers, in areas trying (or not even trying) many different tactics with varying degrees of success. Despite the proven worth of mangroves - not just as nurseries to commercial fish and numerous birds, shoreline buffers for storm surges, and providers of nutrients to saltwater environments, but as incredibly efficient carbon sinks to offset industrial pollution - the world by and large still views them as it views all swampland: something to be destroyed, or at best exploited for a quick buck. There are also intangible benefits, the beauty and serenity and inspiration to be found among the life-filled mud and branches and tangled roots of the mangrove forests - inspiration drawn on by prominent writers and orators from John Steinbeck to Martin Luther King, Jr. Placing a monetary value on such things is impossible - but, as Warne points out in his final chapter, the idea that the only things of worth have a concrete cash value is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. He also explains the roots of the shrimp farming global juggernaut, an idea that began with good intentions (as so many disasters do) but which has created a monster... one that few people in industrialized nations seem to care about as they chow down on endless shrimp buffets at their favorite fast-food restaurants. (I distinctly remember watching this shift as I grew up; at one time, shrimp was a luxury food, and then suddenly I was seeing DQ selling them by the bucket.) Of course, it's not the fault of the shrimp industry alone; population growth in coastal cities, rising real estate values, pushes for new tourist resorts and golf courses, and more pressures are putting the squeeze on these brackish rainforests, not to mention poor public image; everyone can see the beautiful fish of a coral reef, or the tigers of a jungle, but mangroves lack a charismatic "face" for people to care about. A growing number of people and governments are coming to realize the cost of mangrove destruction, and the value of sustainability, but with a patchwork of imperfectly-enforced laws and conflicting interests and hard-learned distrust on all sides, it's hard to see much hope for long-term prospects... at least, not until humans are either forced to wake up or knocked off the top of the global totem pole by our own short-sighted land (mis)management. It's a good, eye-opening book, even if some of the names ran together by the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Bill Nye) - My Review
Swamplandia! (Karen Russell) - My Review

Friday, January 15, 2016

By Sword, Stave or Stylus (Andrew Knighton)

By Sword, Stave or Stylus
Andrew Knighton
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: An African gladiator in mythical Rome pursues an unusual escape plan... a thief's love for a wizard's daughter is put to the test... an assassin targets a powerful shogun... a demon detective investigates the death of a fallen angel in Hell.. These stories and more are gathered in this collection.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Many of these stories have nice, intriguing ideas behind them. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, they tend to be little more than fragments, with little point or purpose, feeling like stray notes or chapters pulled out of larger works without sufficient context to make me care about them. For instance, there's the story of the assassin girl who can become a shadow in order to track and target victims - but how am I supposed to care about her mission when I don't know why she was sent, or whether or not the shogun she targets deserves death? What are the stakes, beyond the generic risk inherent in an assassination, and why should I care about such an empty shell of a main character? It's almost as though Knighton, having come up with the idea for a story, didn't think there needed to be a story arc or characterization, or a reason for the tale itself. Some of the stories also took place in the same worlds, but failed to build upon each other. While decently written, I didn't care for the incomplete feeling that kept me emotionally disengaged.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Odds Are Good (Bruce Coville) - My Review
Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight (Cat Rambo) - My Review
Book of Enchantments (Patricia C. Wrede) - My Review

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The 5th Wave (Rick Yancey)

The 5th Wave
(The 5th Wave series, Book 1)
Rick Yancey
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: When the aliens came, they didn't send robot ambassadors or bring magic technology or even land in conveniently combustible invasion machines. They just hung in orbit, a pale green eye over the world, utterly silent and inert. It was almost as though they had no interest in the blue planet below.
Until the First Wave.
In a series of devastating attacks, the Others take out over ninety percent of the human population in a matter of months. First they knocked out the electric grid and machinery with a simple electromagnetic pulse. Then they flooded the coasts, destroying the world's biggest, most powerful cities. Then came the plague... and, just as the survivors were crawling back, the Fourth Wave: sleeper agents, aliens in human bodies, hunting down their own kind. What will the Fifth Wave bring?
Cassie Sullivan used to be a normal high school girl, worried about grades and whether she'd ever work up the nerve to talk to her crush, sports star Ben. Now she's the last human on Earth, or may as well be. There's no way to tell friend from foe, and the last time she thought she and her family were saved, she watched that salvation steal her brother and shoot her father dead in cold blood. It's only a matter of time before she's too slow with her stolen guns, or runs out of water, or succumbs to exposure. She might just get it over with herself - but for one last promise.
Cassie may have done many things she never thought herself capable of - scavenging, surviving alone in the woods, even killing - but one thing she won't ever do is abandon Sammy... even if rescuing him is the last thing she, or any human, ever does.

REVIEW: Reading like The Hunger Games crossed with the later books in the Animorphs series, with a touch of The X-Files and general apocalyptic grit, despair, and paranoia for seasoning, The 5th Wave grabbed me fast and didn't let go until the end. Cassie's not perfect, clearly scarred by her experiences, and the people she pulls the trigger on aren't always aliens; indeed, every character in the book has killed at least one other being by the end, even children as young as five or six. Still, she refuses to give up, even in the face of seemingly-certain doom. Meanwhile, Ben finds himself at Camp Haven, on the grounds of a military base that managed to survive the four waves. Here, he and fellow survivors are being trained to take the fight to the Others, a glimpse into how child soldiers are indoctrinated in the face of utter devastation and the breakdown of civilization. It's not a bloodless process, to say the least. As Cassie struggles to keep her promise and determine whom to trust (tested sorely when she finds herself in the company of the stranger Evan), Ben pushes to prove himself worthy of avenging his family - a family he blames himself for losing. But the truth, for both Cassie and Ben, has some dark twists in store... If you look too close, there are some logic flaws in the alien invasion plan, and of course luck has a way of being on the heroes' side (after nearly deserting them), but that's true of many such stories. Ultimately, I found it an enjoyable, intense read. Now I'll have to track down the second book... and the third.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Animorphs series (K. A. Applegate) - My Review
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) - My Review
Life As We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - My Review

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Border Bride (Elizabeth English)

The Border Bride
(The Borderlands trilogy, Book 1)
Elizabeth English
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Romance
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Since time before memory, the Scots and the English have squabbled across the border, and few feuds run as deep or bloody as that between the Kirallen clan and the Darnleys. But lately the aging laird of Kirallen has been having strange ideas, wearying of digging graves for kinsmen. In an attempt to end the rivalry, he demands that Lord Darnley's daughter marry his last living son, the wayward Jemmy. But John Darnley does not share his counterpart's dreams; indeed, this marriage may give him a chance to topple the Killarens from within, and see their ancestral home of Ravenspur reduced to rubble and ash. For when John gave his word to send his daughter, he never mentioned which daughter...
Alyson has lived her life in the Darnley kitchens, an unwanted bastard byblow of one of Lord Darnley's raid trophies north of the border. Then she finds herself whisked from the kitchen and forced into a terrible deception: posing as Darnley's legitimate daughter Maude, Alyson is to wed Jemmy Kirallen and act as spy and distraction while the lord prepares a surprise attack that will end this blood feud once and for all. Alyson's heard nothing but dark tales of the Kirallens in general and Jemmy in particular - rumor pegs him as a pirate and a ne'er-do-well - but even then, this lie makes her sick. Still, she has no choice but to go along with Darnley's plan, not so long as John holds her young brother hostage.
Jemmy Kirallen was never his father's favorite child: that was Ian, his elder brother who shared the laird's taste for war... the brother stabbed in the back by Lord John Darnley and his English curs. Rushing home, he learns that he has been promised in marriage to Lady Maude Darnley. Tired as he his of the feud, this is going too far: everyone knows how difficult a woman Lady Maude is, on top of her being English and a Darnley to boot. Three months, his father swears: get her with child, ensure the peace, and he can go back to his life upon the seas. Reluctantly, Jemmy agrees - little good as it's likely to do. One sham of a marriage cannot possibly erase generations of hatred.
Neither Jemmy nor Alyson could predict that the marriage begun in deception might become something much more potent... and much more dangerous, as Darnleys and Kirallens both scheme to upset the fragile peace their vows created.

REVIEW: It looked like a quick read, a romance with a historical, 1300's Highland flair. At first, that's more or less what I got. Jemmy, Alyson, and the other characters are mostly victims of the past, a traditional blood-feud that's gone on so long neither side remembers how it started, but both are too proud to step away. Indeed, the rivalry has come to define them in ways that will be hard to unlearn; cattle raids are a rite of passage on both sides, and the killing of an enemy is the ultimate mark of manhood. Even given the time period, though, the sexism grows wearisome. Alyson's the innocent virgin, the tenderhearted girl with a strong faith in God, who by and large does a terrible job of deception. Jemmy, naturally, is a hardened man of the world, veteran of the battlefield and the bedroom, whose one love was an unfaithful Spanish lady (can we say stereotype?); her betrayals left him unable to trust his heart... until, of course, an innocent English woman slips past his defenses. Alyson frets and prays and even contemplates suicide to escape this devil's dilemma, Jemmy wrestles with his heart and head over the call of love versus the call of blood, and various forces without and within try their best to tear the couple asunder. There's a tedious tendency for someone (usually Alyson) to be on the verge of revealing a Major Secret or Confession of Love, only to be interrupted at the last minute. One can only pull this trick so often before it gets old, especially when the interruptions are so impeccably timed. The children in the novel are annoyingly innocent; given their age and the era, I'd expect them to be a little less naive, especially having grown up in the middle of a bloody feud. And then there are the ghosts, who turn up for absolutely no reason. I suspect they were more important in an early draft, but as it reads now, there is absolutely nothing the spirits do or say that couldn't have been performed by a living person. Why bother introducing a supernatural element if it's not going to matter? Tensions and lies ratchet up, often pushing into melodrama, before the whole matter comes to a head. The ending is subtly unsatisfying, and doesn't quite address the lingering hatred - hatred that will likely be inflamed on both sides by certain elements of the resolution. This story does indeed read fast, but I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed in how it all played out.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Inscription (Pam Binder) - My Review
Trials of Artemis (Sue London) - My Review
Forever His (Shelly THacker) - My Review

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Etiquette & Espionage (Gail Carriger)

Etiquette & Espionage
(The Finishing School series, Book 1)
Gail Carriger
Little, Brown Books
Fiction, YA Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Sophronia Temminnick, youngest daughter and greatest embarrassment of a minor well-to-do family, never wanted to go to finishing school. She'd much rather spend her time dismantling the automatic dumbwaiter and climbing around with the stable boys than learning a proper curtsy or worrying about dresses. But once her mother's mind is made up, there's no changing it. Besides, there's something very odd about Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. For one thing, the recruiter appears to be hiding something - something valuable enough to prompt robber flywaymen to attack their carriage. For another, the academy is aboard a massive airship. The classes range from dancing to daggerplay and posture to poisons. Sophronia was afraid she'd be bored out of her mind at a finishing school, but all too soon she finds more excitement and danger than she could ever have hoped for.

REVIEW: This young adult series is set in the steampunk/fantasy Victorian world established in Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series... which may partially explain my issues with it. Perhaps, had I been familiar with the other books, I would have had an easier time swallowing bad guys called Picklemen and the overall silly air that permeates the entire novel, a silliness that completely negates any sense of gravity or danger despite frequent talk of death and assassinations. This silliness carries over into Sophronia's supposedly brainy personality; in a world with vampires, upon encountering a man with fangs - fangs that are made quite obvious when he gets something stuck to them, a glaring red flag as other characters literally point at the fangs in front of her - must she really have to be told well after the fact that this man is, in fact, a vampire? Apparently so. Earlier, she had similar issues identifying a werewolf, even when the wolf form wears the same top hat the man himself wore not five seconds before she sees the beast... though she does manage to work out that identity on her own. This is the clever, spunky heroine I'm supposed to be rooting for? Really? The usual suspects of a young adult school-based fantasy come into play - the New Best Friend, the Instant Enemy, the Secret Plot All The Teachers Are In On, the Cute Animal Sidekick (a mechanical dog named Bumbersnoot, which is largely comic relief), and plenty of late-night skulking and spying and plotting - amid a setting hung with the usual steampunk/fantasy trappings of airships and gears, and the stiff upper lip of Victorian England pushed to absurd degrees. Some of the elements of the setting were intriguing, such as the advanced mechanical servants and the concept of aether that interfered with long-range communications, but the vast majority of it was just window dressing and MacGuffins. I never felt particularly engaged with the world, in other words. There was also a smattering of racism that felt like Carriger was trying far too hard to both acknowledge that black people existed in Victorian times and downplay the dark side of prejudice. Add in an ending that left too many loose ends (and went out of its way to damage no more than the odd petticoat and lilac bush), and I walked away decidedly nonplussed. It hits the marks if you're looking for a steampunk Victorian young adult adventure, but it just didn't click with me.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Flash Gold (Lindsay Buroker) - My Review
Larklight (Philip Reeve) - My Review
Leviathan (Scott Westerfield) - My Review

Friday, January 1, 2016

Bidding On Brooks (Kathy Regnery)

Bidding On Brooks
(The Blueberry Lane Series: The Winslow Brothers, Book 1)
Katy Regnery
Katharine Gilliam Regnery
Fiction, Romance
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Ex-Olympian sailor Brooks Winslow doesn't know how his kid sister Jessica talked him into it, but somehow he became part of her fund-raising bachelor auction, part of a package including a week-long cruise down the coast in his restored 1929 Cutter, the Zephyr (complete with photo shoots and an exclusive with the tabloid Celeb! website.) Ever since his father died at forty, when he was seventeen, Brooks swore off the idea of love and relationships and any dating that might lead to either: why bother, when he's just as likely to drop dead and leave a devastated widow and children behind? Worse, he knows the kind of women who are likely to show up at this auction, gold-digging opportunists who only want the social boost that comes with bedding a celebrity. He has only one chance to escape, in a lifelong friend from the marina: Skye Sorenson.
Since she was ten years old, Skye has loved two things: sailing, and Brooks Winslow, perhaps the best sailor she's ever set eyes on. But girls like her - middle-class mechanics, more comfortable in greasy overalls than silk gowns - don't get men like him. Besides, she has a boyfriend, Pat... even if their plans to circumnavigate the globe turned into a solo trip, with her left standing on the dock. (He was probably right - she's not a good enough sailor for such a trip, even though she's been on the water since she could walk.) The one thing she learned from her walk-away mother is to never cheat on a relationship, because a heart betrayed never heals. She can still be friends with Brooks, though. So when he came to her, desperate for help - willing to pay her to bid on him, and offering the ultimate bait of co-skippering the Cutter - how could Skye refuse?
What began with a simple request soon becomes much more complicated, as Skye realizes her feelings for Brooks aren't just puppy love... and Brooks suddenly realizes that Skye's much more than just a marina mechanic. One week aboard the Zephyr may heal both their wounded hearts... or leave them shattered on the waves.

REVIEW: Early on, this looked like a nice little romance, with all the usual elements of the genre clicking along nicely. Brooks seems to have it all, but has let his fear of an early death - and the devastation he'd leave behind, the one he witnessed firsthand after his father's passing - rob him of any true and lasting joy and companionship. Skye was so betrayed by her mother's departure that she accepts whatever halfhearted love she's given, even if it comes with verbal backhands to her skills and intelligence. The two find common ground, so to speak, on the sea, their love of sailing providing a bridge over the gulf between them. They start as believable friends, neither having seriously considered the other as a romantic partner until the events of the story open their eyes. A little predictable, perhaps, but not too bad. Somewhere past the halfway mark, though, things changed, subtly yet perceptibly. What had been understandable angst becomes eye-rolling melodrama, as both Skye and Brooks wallow in misery even as they fall helplessly in love, clinging to hollow half-triumphs that seem more painful than outright rejection. Skye in particular seems almost hopelessly naive, despite the example set by her mother. The final crisis, when it comes, is so blatantly telegraphed I spent much of the story simply waiting for that shoe to drop. The over-the-top ending cost the story the extra half-star it almost earned for its earlier fun... fun that's entirely forgotten long before the Zephyr reaches the end of its voyage. It's competent enough, with some steamy seduction sequences and two reasonably-matched characters, but ultimately nothing special.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Wicked Games (Jessica Clare and Jill Myles) - My Review
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