Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: Riot by Walter Dean Myers

Found via: A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

No Non-fiction Monday this week for me :-( All of my non-fiction reading this week has been older and not-necessarily-YA Civil War stuff.

So instead I'll give you some Civil War historical fiction!

Riot looks at the New York City draft riots of 1863, when the draft was first instituted in the United States, and included the provision that rather than being drafted a man could give the government $300 in order to pay for a replacement. Considering that an average monthly salary back in the day would hover around $10 (and could be significantly less if you were of a disliked class, such as a free Black man or an Irish immigrant), only the rich would be able to afford avoiding the draft. This just heightened existing class and racial tensions, since many of those who would now be forced to fight viewed it as a rich man's war fought by poor men on behalf of black men.

At the center of this particular story is Claire, the daughter of a white Irish mother and an African-American father, who run a nice little hotel with hopes of owning it someday. Claire has fair enough skin that she easily passes for white, though it's generally known in the neighborhood that she's biracial. When the first mutterings of the draft riots begin, a few local hooligans come by Claire's family's hotels, looking for support, but Claire's family is determined to stay out of the fray, insulting the hooligans.

As the city explodes into violence, Claire's parents do everything they can to keep her safe, but Claire is determined to figure out for herself where she fits into this riot: she is Irish, but isn't she also Black? Where should her loyalties lie? And why did this have to devolve into violence in the first place?

I have to admit, I'm not a fan of the screenplay narrative method. I thought it worked for Monster but just fell short here. I felt like we were too removed from everything, from Claire's feelings about her identity to the brief glimpses of the violence. Nothing really connected, and the screenplay format led to some awkward dialogue to explain the background and historical setting that would have been covered in narration in a traditional book. Due to this distance, I felt like this would probably work best for someone who has a bit of working knowledge of the draft riots, and wants an interesting story about the people at the time.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Book Events: Post-Apocalyptic Teen Fiction panel, Barnes & Noble

So getting to see my favorite authors all the time isn't the reason that I moved to New York City, but it's certainly a nice bonus.

So yesterday on a cold and rainy night (seriously, I feel like we skipped fall and are just plunging head first into winter. I guess June really was our October!) I went to the upper east side Barnes & Noble to see Scott Westerfeld, James Dashner, Carrie Ryan and Michael Grant discuss post-apocalyptic teen fiction.

Scott Westerfeld started the night, talking about Leviathan, which he called more pre-apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic, but whatever. I felt a little bit like a stalker since this is the third time this year I've gone to a Scott Westerfeld event, but this was the first time I got to hear him speak in depth about Leviathan, and he shared some really cool things. Like the illustration process: Scott would write a few chapters, then send them on to Keith Thompson, the illustrator. At one point Keith caught up to Scott and was like "What should I do next?" Scott said that in a couple of chapters the characters were going to be chased by something, so he said Keith should draw something like that and Scott would write it in! I love insights into the creative process like that.

Also, there's going to be a fourth Leviathan book, this one with cutaways and floor plans of the clankers and pictures of the fabricated beasts. He had a picture of the flechette bats - oh man they're gross looking!

He also said during the Q&A that the Midnighters manga, mentioned during the NYC teen authors fest back in March, has been dropped, but NBC has picked up the option for a TV series and is apparently committed to writing a pilot. But Scott is worried because the little summary that NBC has out there says they fight crime! (warning: link goes to TV Tropes. It's a known timesuck. You've been warned) So, in Scott's words, it could be terrible.

Next was James Dashner, though I have to admit I didn't take any notes on him since all he did was summarize his new book, The Maze Runner, which I haven't read yet. I may or may not add it to my to-be-read pile, for while some of it sounds interesting, I also get easily frustrated with heavily male casts, and in this book "The Glade," which is at the center of a maze, is populated only with boys, until randomly a girl is sent there. It could be interesting - after all, I found The Knife of Never Letting Go to be awesome and I'm getting seriously impatient for the library to send me the sequel - so I'm withholding judgment until I can read it for myself.

Carrie Ryan spoke next about The Forest of Hands and Teeth...which apparently I never reviewed on here. Did it come out before the blog did? I don't remember - I do know the book became too bogged down in romance for my taste, but it was really interesting hearing Carrie talk about how the book came about. Not only was she inspired after watching zombie movies and wondering what happened to the survivors (because after all, unlike with a nuclear apocalypse, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse will have time to gather supplies and choose where they'll wait out the zombies, but eventually they'll have to stay in one place), but also about how we can lose stories if they aren't part of our daily lives. In The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Mary has grown up hearing stories of the ocean from her mother, but neither Mary nor her mother have ever actually seen an ocean, since they're in a fenced in village in the forest. Carrie was inspired because there was a family story passed down from her great-grandmother where no one remembers the great punchline the great-grandmother used to use.

Also, the sequel, The Dead Tossed Waves is coming out next March and Carrie Ryan will be back in New York for the book tour. I think I'll probably check it out - I have a feeling some of my romance issues will be resolved with the next book.

Finally up was Michael Grant of Gone and Hunger as well as my beloved Animorphs series. I have to admit I felt extremely vindicated when, during the Q&A session, he brought up the "abrupt" ending of Animorphs (oh man is THAT an understatement!) and acknowledged, "Well, that didn't work out well." So he's promised that he knows how the series is going to end (though not in detail as JK Rowling claimed to know the whole Harry Potter series - he kinda thinks she made that all up just to keep her editors from freaking out) and it won't be abrupt like Animorphs.

Thanks to all the authors and B&N for hosting the event!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

OMG. Don't read this book while you're on the train to work in the morning. You will be grumpy all day and find yourself sneaking to read short chapters under your desk when no one's looking.

I'm really not even exaggerating there.

Shawna hasn't seen her mother for ten years, not since she ran out on Shawna and her father to live with another woman in New York City, when her mother's partner - Fran - calls one night to give Shawna terrible news: her mother's had a stroke. She's going to die.

In the aftermath, Shawna's life begins to fall apart. Her dad is still the executor of her mother's will - she and Fran couldn't be married in New York, so legally Fran has no rights to shared property, any of her partner's belongings - maybe not even the two boys she raised as her own. Unable to live in New York on her own, Fran moves herself and her sons to Ohio to live with a relative - a relative not too far away from Shawna and her father, coincidentally.

As her controlling and overbearing father continues to show his true colors, Shawna finds herself facing more and more questions about her family history, what it means to even be a family, and how to be herself.

As I tweeted the other day, I hated Shawna's father. With a burning passion. I mean, as a character and a foil for Shawna he worked wonderfully, but if we were giving out literary awards for "Worst Parent of the Year," he would be at the top of my list. The way he always called Shawna stupid, opened her mail, and refused to help care for his own elderly father all just made me livid. I don't remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a character. Man he was a jerk. He's the reason I was grumpy on Friday morning, because I hated him, but I also desperately wanted to get back to the story. Of course, every time I went back he revealed a new "charming" personality trait, which would almost make me regret picking the book back up, but I had to keep going to see how everything resolved!

I also loved Shawna as a character because she was believably flawed. She had a huge personal growth journey to undergo in this story, and she advanced in fits and starts - sometimes taking several steps backward before she made any real progress. Outside of her family drama, there's a great subplot at her school about other kids calling her a lesbian either because her mom's gay, her best friend may be gay, she wouldn't sleep with a guy, or some combination of the three.

This is another book that isn't the easiest read, in part thanks to characters that seem a bit heartless at times, but I absolutely couldn't put it down.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Review: I'll Pass for Your Comrade by Anita Silvey

This one had a convoluted process of getting into my hands. A few weeks ago the Equal Rights Amendment fan page on Facebook announced that for the book group we'd be reading They Fought Like Demons, about female soldiers in the Civil War.

I was particularly a fan of the writing in They Fought Like Demons, but I was absolutely fascinated by the subject matter. I realized that I really knew next to nothing about the Civil War aside from (as I described it to my mom) the South seceded, people died, slaves were freed (eventually). So I've been hunting down Civil War books since then and currently have a separate browser window with 17 tabs' worth of various Civil War websites.

So far, I'll Pass for your Comrade is my favorite resource for details on the soldiers because it not only looks at women soldiers (as They Fought Like Demons does; actually, Silvey says in the author's notes that They Fought Like Demons was what inspired her to start researching female Civil War soldiers!) but it provides some great basic Civil War information as well. For example, I've been having a hell of a time figuring out how on earth the armies were organized. I see terms like company, brigade and regiment thrown about without any descriptions of how they're different. Silvey explains that a town would form one or two companies of about 100 soldiers each; ten companies could be placed together to form a regiment of 1000 soldiers, and 40 companies formed a brigade. She also does a walk through of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle on American soldiers, where at least 8 women disguised as men fought, seven for the Union and one for the Confederacy. While I'm sure she could have included hundreds of pages worth of detail on that battle alone, just enough detail is given that I felt like I knew what happened in that battle (troop movements, who had the tactical advantage, etc) without feeling like I was drowning in information. Some writers get extremely verbose about the Civil War, and while I'm sure it's all fascinating it can be a little intimidating for someone who's researching it for the first time. (Because seriously, I don't remember studying the Civil War. Ever.)

I'll Pass for Your Comrade stays focused on the soldiers, giving as in depth an account as possible for many women. I appreciated that Silvey didn't wander into recaps of what caused the war and the politics of secession and so-on; I read this book to get an accessible look at the women who risked it all to fight in the war. I found it fascinating to read about the respect many of these women soldiers were treated with; there were times where a woman was discovered but would be allowed to stay in the ranks thanks to her proven bravery on the battlefield. Today we are still debating whether it's appropriate for women to participate in combat operations in our military. Women were proving 150 years ago they had what it took to be soldiers alongside men - it's a fascinating aspect of our history and I'm glad these soldiers are finally getting some of the recognition they deserve!

If anyone has any recommendations on great Civil War books that won't take a year and a half to read, I'd love to hear them!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters

Found Via: Amelia Bloomer Project

It seems like October has more than the usual number of month-long celebrations/awareness causes. Of course it's breast cancer awareness month, and yesterday I noted it covers part of hispanic heritage month. But did you also know it's Domestic Violence Awareness Month and LGBT history month?

Rage is an extraordinarily timely book, even leaving aside the month I chose to read it in. It's a complicated novel, a love story as the subtitle says, but so much more than that.

Johanna is absolutely, 100%, head over heels in love with Reeve, a gorgeous yet fragile yet dangerous girl. Who doesn't seem to know that Johanna exists, until Johanna is assigned to tutor Reeve's brother to ensure he graduates.

Reeve is very physical - not only is she constantly caressing or holding on to Johanna, but she (playfully?) slaps and punches her as well.

And then the hits start leaving bruises. Or breaking skin. Reeve says Johanna is stupid for putting up with it, but Johanna knows that it's not Reeve's fault - Reeve is testing her. Reeve just needs to be loved. If Johanna loves her enough, Reeve will be fixed.

The subplots are just as artfully constructed as the relationship between Johanna and Reeve. Johanna's mother died not too long ago, finally forcing her older (and estranged, since Johanna came out) sister, Tessa, and her husband to return from college to take care of Johanna for the last few years of high school. Tessa and her husband are trying to start a family of their own, with lots of difficulty. And Johanna's best friend doesn't seem to make the best relationship decisions, either - and can't seem to make up her feelings about Johanna's sexuality.

I felt devastated as I read this novel. It was almost physically painful to watch Johanna, and I just wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her this is not what a good relationship looks like. Unfortunately, in the real world girls like Johanna are far too common. Want some chilling statistics for your day? "Approximately 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually
abused by a dating partner"
(link leads to a .pdf). And it's not just boys and men beating up women and girls: 11% of lesbians reported violence by a female partner with other studies showing that LGBT teens are just as likely to be victims of dating violence as their heterosexual peers. So Rage is one of those Important Books for teens to read, but its one that can be recommended wholeheartedly, not just as a "problem novel" for kids in trouble to relate to.

Rage also fulfills my longstanding desire to see books about LGBT characters that aren't just about how hard it is to be gay. Johanna has some personal struggles with her sexuality, but it's a small part of the overall narrative. She has made peace with herself long ago (it's other people's reactions to her that are sometimes problematic), so her only angst is about first whether Reeve will ever notice her and second over how she can heal Reeve.

This is a book that I really think every teenager needs to read. It's absolutely horrifying - but then, so is the fact that 20% of high school girls report being abused in their relationships. It's an extremely well-done story about an extremely difficult subject.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Review: Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez

Found via: BBYA 2010 Nominations
Winner: Pura Belpre Author Award 2010

Both Tyler and Mari live on a small Vermont dairy farm, but they're there for two very different reasons: Tyler is the son of the farmer, who was injured over the summer in a tractor accident. Mari is the daughter of the Mexican migrant worker Tyler's father hired (along with his two brothers, Mari's uncles) to help around the farm.

Tyler is a perpetual worrier: he's worried that his parents are going to sell the farm, but there are also rumors that Mari and her family are in the country illegally. Why would his parents want to break the law by employing illegal immigrants?

Alvarez does a good job working through Tyler's concerns. The novel follows his and Mari's year in sixth grade, which really is just about the time you begin to figure out the world isn't all black and white. We watch Tyler grow from someone who is fairly absolutist to recognizing the shades of gray in the world as he begins to form his own opinions and craft an identity separate from his parents' beliefs.

Less well done were Mari's parts of the narrative. Tyler's chapters are from a 3rd person perspective while Mari occasionally tells a chapter through letters. There's nothing wrong with this device, except Alvarez fills Mari's chapters with some very awkward exposition, with Mari telling characters she is writing to things that they already know, because the events happened to them before Mari started her letter. It's the sort of writing conceit one usually sees in science fiction, where one scientist is explaining something to another using phrases like "Well of course you know about..." and rehashing things that all of the characters know but the reader doesn't. It sticks out every time it happens (and it happens in several of Mari's letters), to the point where I really thought Alvarez should have chosen a different style for conveying Mari's chapters.

September 15-October 15 is Hispanic heritage month, and this is an excellent title to read as part of the celebration as Mari and her two sisters teach Tyler and his family (especially his grandmother) all sorts of Mexican traditions. Really I think the grandmother was my favorite character - she's so excited to learn from the girls and doesn't hesitate before embracing and celebrating things like the Day of the Dead.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Review: Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Found via: NYC Teen Author Festival
Winner: Printz Award 2010

I got my first glimpse of Going Bovine back during the NYC Teen Author Festival, at the I Have Seen the Future... event. Libba Bray cracked us all up with Cameron and Gonzo's adventures with the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack 'n' Bowl.

The rest of the book was just about as crazy and ridiculous as that excerpt she read. If nothing else, the book is consistent.

Going Bovine stars Cameron, a 16 year old slacker who wants nothing more than just to get through high school. He really doesn't care about his classes, his job, his family responsibilities, his hobbies...he's just muddling through. Until he gets a devastating diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease - aka Mad Cow disease. A punk rock angel named Dulcie appears to Cameron in his hospital room, telling him he must take his roommate, a paranoid dwarf called Gonzo, on an epic quest to save the world from an inter-dimensional rupture, and find a cure for Cameron along the way.

Honestly my first reaction at the end of the book was "What the hell did I just read?!" This book is 99.58% ridiculous, with that last .42% made up of the occasional deep meaningful insight into the meaning of life, the universe and everything. But it's a fun-ridiculous, not a why-did-I-just-read-that, it-served-no-purpose ridiculous. Be open to the ridiculous and the weird, and you'll enjoy Going Bovine.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

ARC picked up at BEA

My main reason for getting into BEA back in May was the release of the Catching Fire ARC. A nice bonus was picking up Leviathan, written by my hero Scott Westerfeld. I've written more about my love affair with Mr. Westerfeld's work here.

Leviathan has gone through quite a bit of cosmetic changes since I got my ARC. Mine has the original cover, which was nice and all, but I really love the actual cover.

But a change in covers isn't quite enough to get me to go out and buy a new copy of the book - however, the new endpapers might get me to change my mind. Check out Scott's blog for an awesome .jpg (it's now my desktop background at work) and background information on allegorical maps and an explanation of the imagery in Leviathan's map.

But what about the actual story, you're asking? It is, in a word, awesome.

Set in an alternate WWI-era Europe, Leviathan follows two teenagers: Deryn is a Scottish girl who dresses up as a boy (and goes by the name Dylan) in order to join Britain's air service. Alek is the son of Archduke Ferdinand. Yeah, that Archduke Ferdinand.

But because this is steampunk, this isn't just a piece of historical fiction: in this version of WWI, the British have learned how to genetically engineer animals (these are the Darwinists, as here it was Charles Darwin who discovered DNA and paved the way for such engineering), while Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire rely upon great mechanical war machines that do in some ways emulate the animal fabrications of the British. In our history, machines have usually moved on wheels, but in Leviathan's world, the machines (clankers - any more explanation necessary?) move about on sets of legs.

Deryn and Alek have parallel adventures through Europe for most of the book: Deryn is serving on the great airship Leviathan, which is transporting precious cargo to Russia, while Alek is on the run for his life from the people who would have him assassinated.

Leviathan has a lot of the hallmarks of a great Scott Westerfeld book: the action scenes are epic, there are long journeys through the wilderness (not unlike Tally's quest to find the Smoke back in Uglies), and great, distinct characters. Of course Deryn is a very strong female character (because Westerfeld doesn't seem to know how to write any other kind!), and I really appreciated how in the author's note at the end of the book it's noted that, in reality, much of the past was a terrible time to be a woman. But that's part of the fun of steampunk, that you can take a setting that was less-than-ideal in many ways and create something new. (For more on alternate histories, including some thoughts by Scott Westerfeld on this very subject, check out this video from BEA where Scott Westerfeld speaks, along with Holly Black and Cassie Claire).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: Women Making America By Heidi Hemming & Julie Hemming Savage

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

Holy history books, Batmangirl! Women Making America is the answer to my high school complaint that all of the history books focused too much on dead white men, relegating women to the sidebars. Here women are front and center on every single page, covering American history from 1770 to the present.

The book is divided into nine chapters both chronologically and thematically. 1770-1800 is "A Revolutionary Generation" and naturally focuses on what was happening in women's lives before and during the American Revolution. 1945-1963 is titled "Security at Last?" looking at the relative safety and comfort Americans felt between WWII and the Vietnam war. The chapters are then further divided into sections like "Beauty" (covering fashions of the time), "Education" (what sort of education were different women receiving) and "Paid Work" (proving that even when women were "supposed" to stay at home as wives as mothers, that was only practical for a small percentage of the population at any given time).

Every page is simply overflowing with facts and pictures, with sidebars and different fonts chosen to set off important mini-biographies or pull out quotations. In some places, I actually felt like maybe we were getting a bit too much information for this to truly be helpful in a real history class situation. For example, at least in all of the history books I ever read, most of the books had a very broad narrative and reserved in-depth looks at any one topic for sidebars or specially marked pages. You didn't learn the names of individuals unless they were historically important (presidents, inventors, etc). In Women Making America, it feels like every tidbit of information is followed up with a personal anecdote from another woman's life, leading to a feeling of information overload. Very rarely does a woman appear in more than one section, making it impossible to keep everyone straight. Women's studies courses and texts often emphasize using individual stories as data, because women haven't historically been subjects of study, but here we find the downfall of that method: too many individual stories just get confusing when you can't dedicate enough space to make each story truly memorable.

If you're going to use this in a classroom, or are looking for another source for female points of view in history lessons, I highly recommend you also check out Women's Letters (do yourself a favor and get the paperback version I see they have out now - the hardback version is a brick). Women's Letters gives a real in-depth look at what everyday life was like for women throughout American history, through the letters they wrote. It's an endlessly fascinating book, and as I was reading Women Making America I kept finding myself wanting to revisit the letters in Women's Letters to spend more time on various subjects. (Haha, I always knew all of my education classes would come in handy someday. Who would have thought it would have been on my blog though?).

Women Making America is definitely impressive for its breadth and depth, and is certainly worth a look, but I think because it tries to cover so much within the confines of a history book template, some of it falls flat.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Double Review: "Wildwood Dancing" and "Cybele's Secret" by Juliet Marillier

Recommended by: Brittany, in the Comments on my review of Princess of the Midnight Ball

Back in that review of Princess of the Midnight Ball, I both confessed my love of fairy tale re-tellings, and complained that that particular story didn't feel like it deviated enough to be considered a true re-telling. My good friend Brittany chimed in that when she asked Cindy Dobrez, our middle school librarian, about it, Cindy recommended this pair of books (since Lynn Rutan, our other librarian back in the day and Cindy's co-reviewer at Bookends, had run off with Princess of the Midnight Ball so she could review it for the blog!)

So I went into this pair of books with high expectations - Brittany's known me almost as long as Cindy and Lynn have, so she has a pretty good grasp of what I like to read! And while I was underwhelmed by Princess of the Midnight Ball, I was absolutely enthralled by Wildwood Dancing and Cybele's Secret.

Wildwood Dancing follows five sisters living in a castle in Transylvania (awesome setting). Their mother died giving birth to the youngest daughter (as so often happens in these tales) and their father is now gravely ill. So he leaves his merchant trading business in the capable hands of his second-oldest daughter, Jena, and heads off to warmer climates for the winter.

Unknown to anyone else, Jena and her sisters spend the evening of every full moon in the Other World - a magical land filled with various fair-folk of legend. Here's where the twelve dancing princesses connection comes in, though there are only five girls and they aren't princesses. And they aren't cursed, either - at least, not with dancing. They choose to spend the evening of every full moon there, dancing or debating or playing games.

But their tranquil nights in the Other World are soon threatened. Jena's cousin, Cezar, doesn't think a girl like Jena is capable of handling her father's affairs, and works bit by bit to make Jena and her sisters completely dependent on him while their father is away.

Two more stories get thrown into the mix here as well: the frog prince subplot is absolutely wonderful and fun, and then there are the night people that appear in the Other World, and cause a bit of trouble not only in the Other World, but in Jena's valley as well. The night people, or at least the rumors that surround them, strongly resemble vampires. Which of course makes perfect sense given the Transylvania setting.

I absolutely loved Jena: she's super-capable of taking care of herself and her sisters. She fights tooth and nail when someone tries to tell her she can't do something because she's a girl, or she needs to get rid of her best friend in the world, the frog Gogu. The only regret I had was she never punched Cezar in the nose. Man that guy was obnoxious.

Luckily he never makes an appearance in Cybele's Secret, the sequel set a few years later and following one of Jena's younger sisters, Paula, this time going with her father on a merchant trading mission in Turkey. This story doesn't seem to follow any particular established fairy tale, choosing instead to focus mostly on historical treatment of women in social and religious circles. Paula goes from doing pretty much whatever she wants in rural Romania, to the highly religious city Istanbul where she must follow a strict code of conduct, including how she dresses and who she travels with, or risk her life (or at least ruining her father's business plans).

While in the first book Jena was a competent merchant, in this one we see Paula the scholarly genius, combining her book smarts with her knowledge of the Other World to help her father secure a business deal to acquire "Cybele's Gift," an ancient artifact left over from a pagan religion - one that might just be re-emerging in Istanbul. Helping Paula to retrieve the artifact is her loyal bodyguard, Stoyan, and the dashing, perhaps untrustworthy, pirate, Duarte da Costa Aguiar. Along the way some fairy tale tropes are called up, like an epic quest with complicated rules, but nothing as specific as was in the first book.

I loved getting to know Paula as a character for about three quarters of the book - for the last quarter or so the narrative gets so bogged down in romantic tension I kind of wanted to gag. I'm not a big fan of romance stories, especially when it seems like the romance is getting in the way of an epic adventure or (even worse) watering down a strong character who can do nothing without her True Love in her life. Blech. There was romance in Wildwood Dancing, but mostly between Tati, Jena's older sister, and her suitor, so it never got in the way of Jena's story. Here Paula's romantic desires overshadow everything else at various points, which had me flipping pages anxiously to get back to the adventure parts of the story.
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