“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

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“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

FILM: “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them”

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fantasticbeastsposter“Witches live among us.”

J. K. Rowling didn’t know what she unleashed when she gave us the Harry Potter books. His story is grand enough, sure, but I’m a sucker for a well-built world, and Rowling builds worlds with the best of them. So much is dropped into the Potter books that makes you want to know more about the wider world, and during those books and since she has teased us with fascinating and exciting information about the world that Harry was born into. But it’s not all about Harry, and so we find ourselves in the same world, but in an entirely different time and place.

It’s 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just arrived in New York. It’s meant to be a short visit, but when a Niffler escapes from his case, he sets about trying to get it back, although while doing so he accidentally reveals his wizarding status to Jacob, a baker and a No-Maj (American word for Muggle). He is arrested by Tina Goldstein, who works for the magical government for breaching the Statute of Secrecy, and then things go from bad to worse when he realises that he’s misplaced his suitcase. This would be bad enough anywhere, but it’s full of magical beasts, and the American wizarding community is even more secretive than the British one, and they don’t take kindly to a menagerie of magical animals running around New York.

However, there’s some dark magic afoot in the city and it’s believed to be caused by Gellert Grindelwald and his supporters. There’s also the issue of a group called the Second Salemers led by Mary Lou Barebone, a woman who beats her children, including adopted son Credence, and believes that witches are hidden among ordinary people and are causing all the strange events of recent times. Newt must get all his beasts back into his suitcase without causing too much of a disruption, but that’s going to be far easier said than done.

I went to the cinema trying to not have high hopes, but failing miserably. The trailers had looked good, all the reviews had been positive, and the few people I knew who’d already seen it reported back great things. There’s nothing worse than hoping something it going to be great only to then have it stink. Fortunately, this is a piece of sheer cinematic magic. With no original book for us to spend the film going, “But that didn’t happen!” you are able to focus entirely on the story. The new characters all burst with magnetism. Queenie is an amazing young woman who I really loved, and Tina is a fine example of a woman who won’t stand by when she sees injustice, despite being slightly awkward and at times uncertain. Jacob, the token Muggle (I can’t get on board with No-Maj as a term), is an interesting device to be used in the story and serves as the audience surrogate to introduce us to this new world. Eddie Redmayne gives an amazing performance as Newt, a geeky, awkward, eccentric collector who by his own admission annoys people and will stop at nothing to protect animals.

And while they’re all stellar performances, it is the animals that steal the show. If you’ve read the companion book, you’ll recognise everything that turns up here, and the film delights in showing us these amazing new creatures. The Niffler, Bowtruckle and Demiguise are all great and good fun (and also, let’s be honest, an excuse to sell cute merchandise) but for me it’s the Occamy and the Erumpent, my favourite animal from the book, that really shine.

The film is different enough from the Harry Potter stories to ensure we’re not retreading old ground, but similar enough to make them feel like home. It opens with a short burst from Hedwig’s Theme, which is surely the anthem of the Potter generation. A chill ran down my spine upon hearing it. It’s loaded with references to the original books, some more obvious than others, and opens up many more questions about the world. New aspects of the lore are added and work seamlessly, which is more than can be said for parts of the “eighth book“. It seems that the series – for there are planned to be five of these films – will focus almost more on the Wizarding War that culminated in Grindelwald’s downfall as much as if not more than the magical beasts and Newt’s career with them.

Roll on part two – something magical is happening here again, and I’m once again back and raring to go.

“The Shambling Guide To New York City” by Mur Lafferty (2013)

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New York is even more diverse than you imagine...

New York is even more diverse than you imagine…

“The bookstore was sandwiched between a dry cleaner’s and a shifty-looking accounting office.”

New York is one of the few places I’d like to go visit. I think you probably have to see it to believe it, and I don’t doubt it makes London look tiny and short. I stopped in fictionally this week, and am still so unsure as to how I really felt about it that I’ll be making my mind up as I write this post.

Zoe Norris is a book editor with a background in travel guides who, after a disastrous relationship with her last boss (a man who had conveniently forgotten he was married) has lost her job and moved to New York, where she feels at home among the throngs of people. Seeking out some places not on in the guidebooks, she stumbles into a bizarre bookshop and then cafe where she finds that a new publishing company is going to be producing their own guidebooks. She is determined to apply, but two current employees of the company warn her off, telling her that she just won’t fit in.

Determined, she applies anyway and the boss, Phil, is so impressed with her that he gives her a go anyway. It turns out, however, that she doesn’t really have much in common with her new colleagues. Phil is a vampire; John is an incubus; Morgen is a water sprite … and that’s not even getting started on the zombies, the psychopomp, and the construct in HR who has the head of her ex-boyfriend. They are the coterie; the non-human residents of Earth who hide in plain sight, taking up residence in the cities where no one is going to look too closely at them. This team have decided to start writing guidebooks for visiting coterie, and Zoe now finds herself as the only human on staff.

But as if starting a new job wasn’t stressful enough, Zoe has also just met her new neighbour, the handsome Arthur, and there are numerous reports of zombies losing access to fresh brains and becoming feral and dangerous. Someone is plotting to bring about death and destruction, pitting the humans and the coterie against one another. Zoe finds herself right in the middle…

Like I said, I’m not sure how I feel about the book. Let’s split this up; here’s the good stuff.

The book plays nicely with ideas of how monsters (a pejorative term in this universe) would survive in our world, especially in secret. It details how zombies get their brains, and vampires acquire fresh blood, and really messes around with fantastic racism; for example, it notes that it’s rude to ask someone what exactly they are. While it makes use of well-known creatures such as vampires and zombies (werewolves get a passing mention, but don’t feature), it also brings us some of the more unusual creatures such as incubi, elemental sprites and some of the more goddesses. There’s a prolonged sequence with Apep, an Egyptian god of chaos. It seems to suggest that all the gods humans have invented are real, and I like that concept.

But there’s something missing. Zoe is too flat as a character; she happens to stumble into two coterie-friendly buildings in quick succession at the novel’s start, bumping into the aforementioned Phil and John, two of her soon-to-be-colleagues, when I got the impression that many of these sorts of establishments are avoided or ignored by humans. Her backstory of sleeping with a married boss feels tired, and I don’t like it, and while she’s not a woman obsessed with finding a boyfriend, there does seem to be a bit of a “battle over a man” scenario later on that felt too cliched and unfair to her as a character. The novel sets up some interesting plot points (Zoe’s HR manager having the head of her ex-boyfriend) or concepts (occult favours as currency) and then drops them or doesn’t mention them again, leading to some odd moments of unfulfilled suspense. I feel there’s a lot of wasted opportunity here.

I don’t know, I think I just expected better. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t really set my mind racing with excitement like I hoped. It isn’t bad, and I’d probably read the sequel in time if I find it, but I won’t actively be seeking it out. I’m just a bit disappointed, and I wish I had a stronger emotion about it than that. Oh well, on we go.

“You’re The One That I Don’t Want” by Alexandra Potter (2010)

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Fate has a lot to answer for.

Fate has a lot to answer for.

“The summer heat creates a shimmering haze, through which Venice appears like a Canaletto brought to life.”

The two themes that run through all fiction are, of course, love and death. Eros and Thanatos seem to control all the drama of literature, and indeed in the real world too. You find me a story that doesn’t concern itself with one or the other (or both) and I’ll eat my hat, providing I’m wearing my bacon hat. “Chick lit”, a term I discussed last month, usually brings great helpings of love to the table, although usually spends the meal complaining about cellulite and that they really shouldn’t have another scoop but go on then, as it’s a Friday and the diet starts tomorrow.

I’ve read Alexandra Potter before and I enjoy her slight twist on traditionally romantic fare. I bought this one for a friend’s birthday and it was proclaimed to be very good, so I borrowed it back off her. The thing with Potter is that while her characters are very much cut from the same cloth as every other protagonist in this sort of fiction, she adds a dash of the supernatural to her stories. For example, in Who’s That Girl? the heroine accidentally travels back in time and meets her younger self; in Be Careful What You Wish For, she finds everything she wishes for coming true. This time around, we’re dealing with folk legends and what happens when they come true.

The story begins in Venice in 1999 where teenagers Lucy and Nate have met and are rapidly falling in love. They hear a rumour from a street vendor that if they kiss under the Bridge of Sighs, they will never be parted and they will stay together for eternity. Deciding to give it a go – young love being what it is – they follow it through and then laugh it off as a silly superstition. They part ways at the end of their holiday and she returns to Manchester while he goes back to America.

Ten years later, they have entirely lost contact after the relationship soured, but now Lucy has just moved to New York to work for an art gallery. Her sister Kate is already a successful lawyer in the city, and Lucy moves in with new age hippie Robyn, a woman who casts spells, thinks tie-dye is the height of fashion and has been told by a psychic that her soulmate is called Harold. Then one day and quite out of the blue, Lucy bumps into Nate again. They rekindle their relationship when he admits that losing her was the biggest mistake of his life and soon they’re back to acting like lovesick teenagers.

But in the intervening decade, they discover that they’ve both changed, and not necessarily into someone that the other one likes. Lucy lives off junk food and loves spending time in art galleries. Nate is a wealthy TV producer who spends every waking minute on the phone and no longer has time for carbs or coffee. After a massive row, they break up again when it turns out that you can’t just pick up where you left off. But the legend of the Bridge of Sighs is apparently more powerful than either of them realised and suddenly they’re bumping into each other all over the city, as if the universe is determined to keep them together, just like it originally promised.

All of which makes it a bit awkward given that Lucy has just met Adam, and he might actually be a far better option than Nate ever was…

So there are clichés stacked up here by the crate – love at first sight, a creative protagonist who worries about her body, a love triangle, the sensible sister who is the polar opposite to the ditzy heroine – but it’s also quite refreshing. Not only is Potter genuinely quite a funny writer, this is a hugely interesting twist on the idea that we don’t always know what we really want for ourselves. We’ve all seen stories where people are told they’ll be together forever, and then have to fight the obstacles in the way, but this shows what happens when the people stop wanting to be together. The blessing becomes a curse and soon life becomes unbearable. After all, how would you feel if every time you got into a taxi, sat down in a restaurant or stepped into a shop, your ex was already there?

The secondary characters seem more developed than Lucy, but that’s because we’ve seen her type before. She’s an artist who is very good but had to give it all up. She’s clumsy, weak-willed when it comes to food, always late, and desperately seeking out The One. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book a lot simply because it takes an old idea and turns it upside down. Sometimes you don’t need a hugely different story (although it is nice). You just need to take a classic and shake it up a little.

“Dead Man’s Footsteps” by Peter James (2008)

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DMF“If Ronnie Wilson had known, as he woke up, that in just a couple of hours he would be dead, he would have planned his day somewhat differently.”

I have returned with a newfound speed to Peter James’ series of novels about Brighton policeman Roy Grace. This may exclude a few of you readers who haven’t yet read the first three books in this series – in order, Dead Simple, Looking Good Dead and Not Dead Enough – so read on at your own peril, although I don’t think there is much I can particularly spoil. Yes, there is an ongoing arc through the series, but in this book it takes a backseat. Perhaps try my review for the similiarly named Dead Man’s Folly instead. In either case, I am about to start gushing as soon as I’ve given you a basic outline of the plot.

Ronnie Wilson is one of Brighton’s criminal underclass, but he’s not a particularly successful one. He has arrived in New York with the plan of meeting with one of his contacts and getting him to work with him again, and this time he’s certain that they’ll all be rolling in it. Unfortunately, the meeting never occurs because Ronnie has picked the worst moment to be in New York: it’s 2001, and it’s the morning of September 11th. Surviving the terrible events that follow, he decides that this may actually be a good thing for him – he can fake his own death, clear his debts and start again, even if that means abandoning his devoted wife back home.

Six years later, back in Brighton, a young woman called Abby Dawson is hidden away in her triple-locked flat, scared and alone. It’s clear she’s had to change her appearance and shouldn’t be there, but it’s hard to say why or who she really is. Fears that the man she’s running from have found her become magnified when she gets stuck in the broken lift of her block of flats. She’s got something he wants, and she knows that he’ll stop at nothing to get it back.

Elsewhere in Brighton, DS Roy Grace is called to a storm drain on a building site where a skeleton has been found, dead for many years and with a broken neck. Someone murdered her, and it’s now time for him and his team to seek out some clues of this tragic event, despite the fact that the trail of clues seems to have run cold almost immediately. Throw into this the issues of his new colleague, the slimy Cassian Pewe, his new relationship with mortician Cleo, and his best friend Glenn apparently on the verge of divorce, Grace is suddenly thrown into a busy investigation that will take his team halfway around the world in an effort to solve the case.

Let gushing commence!

I think I said last time that it took me four years to read the first three Roy Grace novels and that was a mistake, which has led to the progressively shorter times between each installment. They’re all dense, thick books, each one easily topping 500 pages, but the writing flows so magnificently that the pages just melt away from under you as you’re caught up in the intricate storylines. The three plots I’ve given above seem, at first, to have nothing to do with one another, but as the book continues, James ties them all up neatly, as he always does, and often in ways that you simply don’t expect.

Grace remains an infinitely likeable man who knows his duty and will do it whatever the cost. The cast of secondary characters, however, is what really brings the whole thing to life. Each character is introduced with their appearance and vague notes of personality, but it never feels like it’s been shoehorned in. Exposition happens naturally, and lets us see what these people are like. There’s a large cast but in each book different ones seem to take centre stage. In this one, for example, Grace’s relationship with girlfriend Cleo is never a big issue, whereas for the last few books it has been shown in some detail. This book also has the wonderful (in literary terms) introduction of Cassian Pewe, a police officer from the Met who has joined Grace in Sussex. Pewe should have arrived two books previously but was in a car crash relating to a case Grace was on, so has only just been able to join in the fun. In the manner of Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter books, he is perfectly described in full technicolour slimy, oily, vile brilliance, a suck-up who doesn’t like being told what to do and seems determined to undermine Grace at every turn. Grace, however, can give as good as he gets, and also has more respect than Pewe from most of the staff, with the possible exception of Alison Vosper, his and Pewe’s boss who favours Pewe in every area.

The tragedy at the World Trade Center is also handled marvellously and takes you deep into the action and the drama that unfolded in the first minutes, hours and days after that first plane hit. While Ronnie is far from a sympathetic character, he displays well the shock, anger and abject horror of the events in a completely understandable way. The book also honours the NYPD and FDNY, showing how tirelessly they worked to help restore order and bring calm to the city and the world after that fateful day.

It’s a fast, engaging read, and there are few authors I enjoy spending as much time with as Peter James. His style is conversational, chatty, but his research is second to none and every character and location is fully realised and three dimensional. Given the impossibly gripping cliffhanger ending, expect the fifth installment of the series on the blog by the end of the year.

If you want to read more of my writing, please download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available for all ebook platforms from Amazon, iTunes and other ebook retailers.

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