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2014 Year in Review #2: Best Books

Self explanatory. Let’s go.

Best Books

Villette Charlotte BronteorendabridgeofbeyondmalarkyThe English Patient by Michael Odaantjewolfhallthesistersbrotherstransatlantic

Only eight books were good enough, and got a strong enough emotional reaction, to get the elusive five-star rating this year. For fun, I’ve tried to sum up my emotional state after finishing each.

  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte (Spaced out for the rest of the day.)
  • The Orenda by Joseph Boyden (Threw up. For real.)
  • The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (Like waking from an extremely lucid dream.)
  • Malarky by Anakana Schofield (Despair, happiness, urge to read again.)
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Heart hurt.)
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I said “wow” out loud, like three times. That’s my review.)
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Cried like a baby.)
  • TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Overwhelmed by how much I’d just read. Not number of pages.)

In making this list, I realized I only did a full, proper review of one book (Malarky) and didn’t mention three of them much at all (The Orenda, The Bridge of Beyond, Wolf Hall.) That’s messed up. If I’m not using my blog to ramble on about the books I loved, what the hell am I doing?

It’s not the end of the world that I didn’t review Wolf Hall, because really, you don’t need me to tell you it’s good (BBC is gonna do that for you. Also Damien Lewis. *swoon*) but I’m not impressed that I didn’t review The Orenda and The Bridge of Beyond, specifically, as it was mostly because I was afraid. I’m uncomfortable reviewing postcolonial literature, or, frankly, literature with racial themes – afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, that I’m not in a position to really “get it,” and so on. I procrastinated on The Orenda and The Bridge of the Beyond till I felt like it was too late. It’d all been said about the former, and I couldn’t remember the story of the latter.

There’s a whole movement about reading diverse, which is based on the “vote with your wallet” idea, but book bloggers aren’t always paying for their books. In this case, The Orenda and The Bridge of the Beyond were both freebies and so the fact that I’ve read them, and kept it to myself, really doesn’t do much for the cause.

Talking about books I love is why I’m here. It’s probably why you’re here. So I’m going to get over myself, and at least review the books that blow my mind this year. (Don’t worry, I’m still gonna snark on books, that is the other reason I am here.)

Overrated Books
mebeforeyouboysnowbirdgirlrunnercanmanThe Girls

I’m not going to do “Worst Books” because I didn’t read anything that was truly awful this year. Mostly because no one tricked me into reading dragon porn. However, I did go into several books with expectations that were not realized. Some of these are gonna be UNPOPULAR OPINIONS. Before you hit “comment,” realize that I liked all these books, just not as much as I thought I would:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyse: All the book bloggers liked it, even the ones who don’t like romance. I was prepared to be won over. I was diverted, but not much more.
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: I liked it A LOT but I was prepared to have my life changed.
  • Girl Runner by Carrie Synder: I feel bad about this one. I liked it a lot, and stayed up late to finish it and everything. I think if I hadn’t been drawing parallels to The Stone Angel, it would have been okay. But no one can compare to Hagar. (Review to come)
  • Mãn by Kim Thuy: Another one raved about in book blog land. Okay, the very small and specific #CanLit book blog land, but still. And I liked it, but it left no impression on me. I don’t think about it at all. (Probably not gonna review but I am going to read Ru as I have been assured it’s even better.)
  • The Girls by Lori Lansens: I feel bad about this one because it was an ethusiastic recommendation from a friend but I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

And, finally, the 2014 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:

Read more

2014 Year in Review #1: The Stats

Are we sick of year in review posts yet? No? I really enjoyed doing multiple, detailed posts last year, but Bookstravaganza took up most of my December so I’m gonna keep things simple this time round. Stats today, best and worst books tomorrow. And maybe top literary crushes (okay, definitely top literary crushes!)

Books Readwpid-20140530_135813.jpg

  • Books read in 2014: 64 (up from 52 last year)

I thought I might hit 75 this year, but it was not to be. Without the Novellas in November and Bookstravaganza boosts, I would have ended up around 52, just like last year. I can live with that!

About the Author

  • 58% female (down from 67% last year)
  • 19% person of colour (up from 12% last year)
  • 55% Canadian (up from 42% last year) 22% American  16% British and 1 each: Argentinian, French, Irish, Russian, Guadeloupean. 
  • Only two Edmonton-area authors this year.

I put a bit of effort into reading more authors of colour this year, and I guess nearly 20% is alright – it’s tough to know, honestly. With gender I’m going for parity, but what’s parity with race? 20% is pretty representative of our population here in Edmonton, but if you expand to Canada, or North America, or world wide, your target would be very different. So my goal with regards to authors of colour next year is to review more of them. That’s where my power as a blogger lies. Some of the best books I read this year were by authors of colour, and I didn’t review them. More on THAT tomorrow.

Genres and Lists

  • 19% classics (down from 35%), 53% contemporary lit fic (up from 48%), 9% non fiction (up from 6%), and a handful of YA, poetry, erotica, romance, and historical fiction.
  • 8 1001 Books for a total of 123 read
  • I’m kind of defunct on The Classics Club. I erased my list because it wasn’t speaking to me anymore. The idea, though, was to read 50 classics in five years, and I read 12 classics this year, so I’m on track.

Ratings

  • 13% were rated five stars (down from 19%), 45% were four stars, 30% were three stars, 13% were two stars, and thankfully, I did not read a single one-star book this year because I decided not to continue with the Fifty Shades trilogy. I will totally see the movie though. For research! And stuff.

Compared to the average Goodreads rating…

  • I rated 27 books higher. The most underrated book was Villette, which I rated a 5, compared to average 3.72 rating. How dare you, people who rated this book less than a 5! It’s perfection!
  • I rated 37 books lower. The most overrated book was Me Before You, which I rated a 2, compared to average 4.31 rating. Apologies to Kristilyn and Brie, who are probably not my friends anymore.

Blog Stats

 

Stay tuned for more 2014 year in review, hopefully before it becomes ridiculously late in the current year!

Booyah, Bookstravaganza!

Bookstravaganza logo

I did it! I read and reviewed ten books in the month of December. I really didn’t think I’d make it. The most books I read in any other month last year was six, and reviews are far fewer. The donation page for Bookstravaganza is closed tomorrow. If anyone is as proud of me as I am, go ahead and donate a couple bucks to the Welcome Baby program at Edmonton Public Library.

Here are my reviews:

  1. Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi
  2. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  3. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
  4. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
  5. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
  6. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  7. Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland
  8. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  9. Detachment by Maurice Mierau
  10. Longbourn by Jo Baker

TransAtlantic remains my favourite. Other standouts were The Wallcreeper, Wild, and Detachment.

Thanks to everyone who supported Bookstravaganza this year. Next year I may try to read…. 11. To celebrate my success, I’m starting the year with the longest, densest books I can find. First up: The Luminaries.

I went to a bunch of literary festivals and all you get is this lousy blog post

For a little more in the way of background info, check out my literary festival preview post.

Ted Bishop at LitFest

I wasn’t going to go to LitFest but I happened to see a free preview of Ted Bishop’s talk about his book in Churchill Square. The free talk was not well attended but the actual event was full of well-wishers. I already wrote about it here but I didn’t tell you about the cool fountain pens we got to try out afterward (cool is a relative term, of course, I assume if you’re reading this you might think it’s cool.) This is my second year attending LitFest and it won’t be my last. I hope LitFest continues the free talks on the Square. If you need to make a business case about return on investment, well, it sold me. That’s something!

wpid-2014-12-27-22.38.38.jpg.jpeg

Joseph Boyden at STARFest

The straight review: STARFest well organized, well attended, and well worth the price of admission. I was there to see Joseph Boyden, who did the standard reading from his latest novel, and chose one of my favourite sections from The Orenda (the first few pages) and he talked about the standard author-appearance stuff – inspiration, research, how the book fits into his larger body of work. He also talked about the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada (I was surprised he didn’t mention his new anthology on the subject, Kwe) and his own struggles with depression as a teenager. He gave a detailed description of his next book, which sounds like a bit of a legend or fairy tale about residential schools.

The gossipy review: Host and author Diana Davidson stunned in a royal blue dress from The Bay. Classic in a black button up, celeb author Joseph Boyden was powerful, vulnerable, and fascinating. Spotted in line at the book signing: Jason Purcell, noted Book Tuber, surrounded by admirers and on-trend in florals; star-struck Glass Buffalo editor Matthew Stepanic, and festival organizer Peter Bailey. I thought I got a “scoop” when Peter mentioned that David Eggers was coming to Edmonton, but he misspoke and meant David Sedaris, which is still pretty exciting!

The honest review: Joseph Boyden talked to me and touched me and said I was pretty. The end.

#squee

#squee

Florals are so hot right now. Jason Purcell and unknown fan await an audience with Mr. Boyden.

Florals are so hot right now. Jason Purcell and unknown fan await an audience with Mr. Boyden.

Joyce Carol Oates at Festival of Ideas

The closing night of Festival of Ideas was kind of the opposite of STARfest: It was under-attended (the Winspear was strangely empty; I hung back but there were plenty of floor seats available) and while I did see people I knew, I didn’t play the gossip columnist this time, preferring the company of Bartelby the Scrivener while I waited for the main eventOates was less vulnerable than Boyden too. I doubt she went too far off script, though she joked with host Eleanor Wachtel that she felt like she was in a therapy session. Her life story was fascinating. I was rapt as JCO described her relatives and ancestors, because they sounded like characters out of a novel. Murders, suicides, Jewish grandmothers who concealed their ethnicity in America, growing up blue collar and going on to be a student and then professor Princeton… sounds like an American family saga to me.

Oates is arguably one of the best known authors in the world, but the signing line was calm, orderly, and short. I’m not sure why she wasn’t a bigger draw – maybe we are just that loyal to our #CanLit stars. I was still pretty nervous about meeting her. I didn’t want to freeze up like I did with Margaret Atwood. I remembered she had talked about personas, so I asked if her Twitter account was the real her or a persona. She said it’s very close to the real thing, except, of course, when her cat Cherie takes over:

@JoyceCarolOates IRL

@JoyceCarolOates IRL

An aside: I was so wrapped up in thinking of my question, that I couldn’t figure out why the man ahead of me in line looked so familiar, until he was getting his booked signed and I heard him say his name. It was Mr. Jeffries, my high school English teacher, who taught me One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Heart of Darkness, and John Donne, and The Odyssey, and was always going on about Joseph Campbell. I didn’t think that much of him while I was in school because I didn’t think much of anything at that age, but I recognize now that those classes had an enormous influence on me as a reader and now as a writer. I missed my chance to say thank you, so thank you, Mr. Jefferies. 

Other bookish happenings this fall

I got a #yegwords coffee at Burrow with @Angry_Vegan

I got a #yegwords coffee at Burrow with @Angry_Vegan

A concrete poem outside my kid's school by @onelastpoem

A concrete poem outside my kid’s school by @onelastpoem

 

Decent book haul from The Great Edmonton Bookswap

Decent book haul from The Great Edmonton Bookswap

The Great Edmonton Bookswap at The Atery - pink light special

The Great Edmonton Bookswap at The Atery

Some of the books at the Bookswap

Some of the books at the Bookswap – OTHERLAND is awesome!

A restrained book haul from the fall library sale

A restrained book haul from the fall library sale

The local author shelf at Tix on the Square

The local author shelf at Tix on the Square

I didn't see these guys, but they look alright

I didn’t see these guys, but they look alright

What do you call half an extravaganza?

Click here for more information on how to donate to this year’s cause, Edmonton Public Library’s Welcome Baby Program. 

My Bookstravaganza goal is ten books read and reviewed in December. I’ve done five. Check ‘em out:

  1. Prairie Ostrich by Tamai Kobayashi
  2. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  3. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
  4. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
  5. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

My favourite so far is TransAtlantic. Next up: Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

Also check out my attempts at creative photography…

Choochoo

 

If you write a book review, and no one reads it, is the prose still stunning?

I’ve wanted to talk about book reviews for a while. There are a couple of specific things on my mind, like the idea that book reviews are too positive, or that reviews must be critical, or diversity in book reviews. But, as my son would say, “put first things first*.” Do people even read book reviews?

 

Book reviews are dead. No one reads them and they don’t sell books.

This statement was (falsely) attributed to Edmonton author Todd Babiak by his former English professor, Ted Bishop. Todd was helping Ted launch his new book Ink at LitFest back in October. A vetern book-launcher, Todd’s advice was to forget trying to get the book reviewed, that he better create something shareable if he wants to get anywhere. And he did; Ted and Todd filmed a cooking-show-style demonstration of how to make your own ink and we served as the studio audience. We even got to use a mortar and pestle! Talk about reader engagement!

I laughed at the thought that no one reads book reviews, but I laughed because it’s true. The only people who comment on book blogs, reviews especially, are other book bloggers. And as for traditional reviews in the newspaper or literary journals? I don’t even read them. I’ve become a reverse-snob when it comes to book reviews; I find a lot of “straight” reviews boring. They’re all plot summary or this:

Lately, I just don’t care about the luminous prose etc. I want to know what a book did to the reviewer. If you cried, or laughed inappropriately, I want to know. I want to hear how a book reflects personal experience.

Despite my own misgivings about book reviews, I still thought Todd made a pretty bold statement, so I went to the source. Luckily Todd Babiak is super nice and accessible, and he immediately told me that he never said those words. Ted exaggerated. He has noticed that a prominent review in The Globe and Mail, though, doesn’t exactly give a book the lift it once did. Things are changing. Todd remembers when there were 19 professional reviewers employed by newspapers in Canada. Now there are just a handful.

There are plenty of people trying to make book reviews fresh and exciting. The National Post runs a weekly feature in The Afterword, where readers get a book to read and then fill out a survey. I did one earlier this year. It’s a nice feature, but it’s not really a review (plus their book choices are weird.) And there are all the almost-review formats we bloggers use: hauls and monthly wrap-ups and so on. But reviews they ain’t.

This isn’t news to book bloggers. James Reads Books blogged about this a couple months ago. I like his challenge to read more reviews, but, should we even need a challenge? Isn’t that why we’re all here?

So, dear readers (who I assume are all book bloggers,) I want to know: Do you read book reviews? Where do you read them: on other blogs, the newspaper, or somewhere else? How are your stats when you post a review?

As for Ink, I haven’t seen that video kicking around YouTube, but I did see a nice review in The Walrus. Maybe there’s hope for the book review after all.

*My son is in Kindergarten and they are learning the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, of which this is one. I have a five year old who tells me to “syngergize” and “be proactive.” This is weird, right?

A Reading Soundtrack: Part IV

Once again, I am inspired by Rory at Fourth Street Review.  She mixes it up this time by taking one album and picking a whole bunch of books that fit the theme. I’m doing my usual thing: one book, one song.

The Book: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
The Song: We Are Shadows by Leaves

Burial_Ritesleaves

Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there.

This book snuck up on me. I was skeptical from the get go; there was too much hype. I still think it’s overrated, but by the end, the overwrought quality of the writing fell away and it became as spare and beautiful as I heard it was.

I resisted the urge to pair Burial Rites with Bjork. I’ve already used a Bjork song for one of these posts, for one thing, and it’s just too obvious. So I sought out the music of the one other Icelandic band I know – Leaves. Like most North Americans, I discovered Leaves when their song Breathe was featured on The O.C. Leaves have put out a few albums since then, and We Are Shadows from their 2009 album of the same name is absolutely perfect. Agnes has been a shadow her entire life.

Hold my hand
as we let go
and northern lights
will fill the skies

Until the morning glows
Weʼre shadows, me and you.

The Book: Infidelity by Stacey May Fowles
The Song: Habits by Tove Lo

infidelitytovelo

This song isn’t a great fit for the plot. The book is about a woman in a stable but boring relationship who knows she isn’t cut out for the straight and narrow, so she has an affair with a married writer who is all kinds of wrong for her. The song is about a heartbroken woman who’s trying to fuck the pain away. The common thread is recklessness. And sordidness: there’s a great passage in Infidelity about how you begin an affair in fancy hotel rooms and work your way down, till you’re alone in a seedy motel. And Tove Lo is super sordid:

Pick up daddies at the playground
How I spend my day time
Loosen up the frown,
Make them feel alive
Oh, make it fast and greasy
I’m numb and way too easy

I admit, this is another one of those songs I love to sing in the car. Usually alone, sometimes accompanied by my two year old who loves to sing the “ooh ooh ooh ooh” part.

In writing this, I remembered that I don’t own Infidelity. I will probably change that. My last “affair” was much lower stakes than this, seeing as there were no marriages or kids involved, but Fowles gets that sickly sweet feeling just right.

B is for Bookstravaganza

Ordinarily things like #GivingTuesday annoy me. Like, we already have a perfectly good day with “giving” already in it, can’t we use that? But today it works in my favour. I’m doing Bookstravaganza this year and I hope to convince a few people to give to Edmonton Public Library’s Welcome Baby Program.

I wrote about the Welcome Baby program and what it means to me here.

I wrote about Bookstravaganza last year. It’s basically a readathon with a charity component.

Find out how to donate here. You can donate a set amount, or pledge an amount per book I read & review this month. My goal is ten books and that’s pretty optimistic, so this doesn’t have to cost you much.

Here are the books I’m going to read:

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

If nothing else, follow the Bookstravaganza blog for daily mini-reviews of interesting books. Some of these people are crazy, or possibly on drugs, because they’ve already finished multiple books and it’s day two! Cheer me on, guys!

Novellas in November 2014 Update #2: Santa Rosa, North East, Bartleby the Scrivener

Fuckin' A.

Fuckin’ A.

Check out my introductory post here, and follow along with participants The Wandering Bibliophile and Write Reads.

Santa Rosa and North East by Wendy McGrath
My rating: 2.5/5 stars
Goodreads

I’m new to verse novels and I don’t think they’re my thing. I enjoyed Karma by Cathy Ostlere, which was very structured and straightforward, but I struggle with books like these, or, like Corey Greathouse’s Another Name of Autumn, which tend more towards stream of consciousness. Kind of verse, kind of not. I can’t find the right pace for reading and I lose track of the story.

The subject matter, and the characters, and the setting, are all of interest to me. In Santa Rosa and North East, we witness the crumbling of a marriage and an Edmonton neighbourhood through the eyes of a five year old. Child narrators are tricky. At times Christine seemed too savvy for her age, too empathetic maybe. I can’t help but compare to my own five year old. Maybe there are depths to him that I don’t see yet.

There is a third book coming, to complete the trilogy. I will probably read it, as the story is compelling enough that I want to find out what happens to Christine (I already know what happens to Santa Rosa; the neighbourhood isn’t there anymore.) I found North East a smoother read than the first, so maybe I’ll hit my stride at last.

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
My rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads

Hypothesis: Bartleby the Scrivener is the inspiration for the classic 1999 film Office Space.

Evidence:

  • Bartleby “would prefer not to.” Peter Gibbons’s “just not gonna go.”
  • Bartleby regularly stares out the window (which looks out on a brick wall.) Peter “spaces out” for about an hour every morning. “It looks like I’m working, but I’m not.”
  • The less Bartleby and Peter do, the more their respective workplaces do for them. Bartelby’s boss assumes there’s something wrong with his eyes, and tries to be compassionate. The Bobs deem Peter a “straight shooter with upper management written all over him.”
  • Bartleby’s quirky colleagues would totally take out a printer. “PC Load Letter? The fuck does that mean?”
  • Bartleby also has much in common with Milton. Once fired, he simply won’t leave and hangs about in the stairwell. Milton ends up in the basement taking care of that little cockroach problem.
  • Oh, and Bartleby works in what may be the first cubicle ever. “I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” As Peter says, “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements!”

Both the book and the movie are a meditation on doing nothing, but end very differently. There’s no “fuckin’ A” coming for poor Bartelby. I don’t know what else to say; this book was amazing. Hilarious and weird and sad and strangely relevant to all the office drones out there, 160 years later.

I seem to have run out of November! I finished one more novella and aim to review that in the coming days. Tell me, whether you read along or not, what’s your favourite novella? Or, what’s your favourite line to quote from Office Space? Mine is “this place… is nice,” which is great for breaking an awkward silence.

Novellas in November 2014 Update #1: Giovanni’s Room, Rip Van Winkle, and Who Will Run The Frog Hospital

A literal take on the title: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

A literal take on the title: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

The month’s coming to an end, so the updates will be fast and furious. Check out my introductory post here, and follow along with participants The Wandering Bibliophile and Write Reads.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads

I had high expectations for James Baldwin after some coverage of his book Another Country on Booktube, and Giovannis’ Room did not disappoint, but, my enthusiasm waned near the end of the book. It was such a strong start, with a voice and a character who was so immediate and believable but still somehow removed – David’s name is hardly ever used in the book, and I would often forget his name altogether – and the back story about his family is so touching. Somehow, the sordidness and violence that come later just didn’t do it for me (and I appreciate sordidness and violence in fiction!)

I would compare Giovanni’s Room to The Great Gatsby and Bonjour Tristesse in both form and content. All three  pack so much into so few pages. All three have captured their home countries’ imagination. All three are about sex and class and people who are never quite enough. This won’t be the last Baldwin book I read.

Oh, and I learned that France only stopped executing people by guillotine in 1977. I thought the references to the guillotine were symbolic or metaphor or something at first. Yikes.

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
My rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads

Rip Van Winkle is a cute story. I chose it because it was the basis for a plot arc on Classic Alice, but I didn’t get much out of the story or those episodes of CA. It’s good knowledge to have though; how many people know anything about Rip Van Winkle other than he slept for a long time? I thought he was supposed to have slept for a hundred years or something, but it was only twenty. The whole thing was about the American Revolution. Also, there were ghosts getting drunk and bowling. I did not know that.

I would recommend it to anyone interested in this time period, or American literature. Check out a free version. It’s funny and very short.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads

Sometimes I wonder if teenage pregnancy is a very common topic in literary fiction, and that’s why it comes up in books I read so often, or if I’m somehow drawn to these books. Either way, these stories tend to work their way into my heart. This one sure did.

Berie and Sils were too young for all the good stuff that happened in the late 60s, and are stuck coming of age in the time of Vietnam and Nixon. They’re just the same age as my parents, actually, and I too relate – my parents just missed Woodstock, and I just missed Woodstock 94 (the latter’s probably a good thing.) The struggles are the same, though – I kept placing the story in the 90s, rather than the 70s, because it felt so immediate and relevant to my teenage years.

This is a coming of age story, but we get a glimpse of Berie as a young adult, reunited with Sils at their 10 year high school reunion, and another look, just a flash, really, of Berie as a middle aged woman with an unfaithful husband. There’s a sense of disconnection between these three version of Berie, but the story never feels disconnected.

I hesitated when rating this book 4 stars. It’s really a 4.5, or a 4.9. I love that moment when you read a big name author for the first time and you GET IT immediately. Lorrie Moore is the real deal. Highly recommended.

Tell me, are you Novella-ing this November? What are you reading? 

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