April Superlatives

April was a good month in numbers (seventeen), a decent month in quality, a month that I have decided I should not attempt to repeat. I got a lot of proofs from the bookshop, probably too many: there were piles on my desk at work, piles on the desk at home, and a kind of grit-my-teeth determination to get through them all before May. The vast majority of them were very good, but that still seems, in retrospect, like an awfully joyless way to read. It also meant that I burnt out on reviewing less than halfway through the month. In May I’ll be reining it in. Which is handy, since I’ll have friends and family visiting, some singing to do, and zero free time.

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most essential: If you like books or use the Internet—and, since you just read that on a website devoted to books, this means you—you need to read The Idealist, by Justin Peters. In part it’s an intellectual biography of data freedom activist Aaron Swartz, in part a tour of historic attitudes to copyright, freedom of information, and open access to literature and other works of culture. If you’re a writer, a reader, a citizen, this is fundamental, and it taps into every other contemporary political issue that there is. (review)

best exposition of little-known history: The fact that there are true things we don’t know about because they’re too weird or peripheral to make it into school history curricula is a source of neverending fascination for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots follows a young, idealistic American woman who moves to the USSR in the 1930s, and tracks the life she lives there, all but abandoned by the US government, as purges start to get worse. It’s a compelling, if somewhat overlong, exploration of choice, dogma, and what it means to be free. (review)

best punch to the stomach: Almost literally; One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel, is under two hundred pages and focuses on the interactions between an abusive father and his two adolescent sons. Magariel compassionately illuminates the pressures and pitfalls of “being a man” in a world that prioritises violence and loyalty above all else. (review)

best application of essential thoughts: Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, is dedicated in part to Aaron Swartz. Set eighty-odd years in the future, it speculates about a wholesale rejection of late-stage capitalism enabled by 3-D printers, widespread tech smarts, a communal mindset, and the fact that the 1% has become the .001%. When a walkaway group discovers a technology for cheating death, all hell breaks loose. Doctorow believes we’ll create the world that we imagine, and he wants us to imagine a cooperative one. It made me feel very hopeful. (review)

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sheerest fun: Volume 2 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s barnstorming space opera graphic novel. In this one, we get more of The Will and Lying Cat—two of my absolute faves—beautifully rendered interactions between Alana and her father-in-law, a planet that hatches, and (finally) the appearance of Gwendolyn. It’s slick, funny, and superb.

most fuck-the-patriarchy: Maria Turtschaninoff’s YA fantasy novel Naondel, the follow-up to last year’s Maresi. Men in general don’t come off well—they’re all evil, weak-willed, arrogant, or all of the above—which does its young readers a disservice; Maresi took care to state that men aren’t inherently bad, a more nuanced approach that showed more respect for an adolescent’s intellect. Still, Naondel is full both of badass women and of women who’ve been badly hurt but not broken. That’s a great big middle finger to oppressive tyrants everywhere. (review)

most self-aware memoir: Admissions, English neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s second book. Marsh is completely honest about his personal faults, which largely neutralises them; he is forthright about the problems that beset the NHS, and clearly fiercely proud of his colleagues, and of the institution as it was originally conceived. He writes a lot in this second volume about aging and death, too, without either sentimentality or cynicism. His voice is wry and utterly unique. Highly recommended.

most diffuse: Sympathy, a debut novel by Olivia Sudjic, published by ONE Pushkin. I liked it well enough, but I finished it unsure of whether Sudjic had actually done anything particularly interesting with her major theme—the ease with which one can stalk and create a false sense of intimacy, using the tools of social media—or whether she had simply used it to tell a fairly conservative story of the need for origins and belonging.

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most unexpected pleasure: That derived from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Going in with no expectations was probably wise; it’s a surprisingly wistful novel, full of marital affection that is no less honest for being presented side-by-side with selfishness and existential terror.

best retelling: Colm Toibin’s reclamation of the Clytemnestra/Agamemnon/Orestes story from ancient Greece, House of Names. Toibin nails the bare-bones, primeval nature of the story and simultaneously brings us into the heads of absolutely single-minded characters. My only query is whether he gives quite enough weight to religious belief: the younger characters are convinced the gods are not there, but Agamemnon must have thought they were, and we don’t get enough of that (or a good reason to decide that he’s merely a nihilistic child-murdering monster.)

best murder: Two, actually—the deaths in Sarah Schmidt’s historical novel about Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done. And by “best” I mean “most horribly described without being gratuitously gory” and “motives for which explored with the greatest delicacy and surprising artistry”. Turns out Schmidt can really, really write, and she cleverly resists the temptation to pinpoint the nature of Lizzie’s mental health problems, making for a gloriously uneasy reading experience.

most wasted opportunity: Queer City, subtitled “a history of gay London from the Romans to the present”, Peter Ackroyd’s latest. To paraphrase what I said in an earlier discussion, Ackroyd fails on two counts: a) to provide much in the way of sources (there’s a bibliography in the back, but he usually just recounts an anecdote without saying where or who it comes from, and without appearing to analyse the source), and b) to create anything like a narrative or a sense of development around the history of gay London. It’s all just event, event, event—court case, scandal, ballad, gossip, hanging—with no framing of these events in a wider context, no attempt more than cursory to explore social and political currents that might suggest why things changed when. And although the book purports to be about the city, it doesn’t really convey a sense of why or how gay culture flourished specifically in London.

best insults: To be found in The Blood Miracles, Lisa McInerney’s follow-up to The Glorious Heresies, which won her the Baileys Prize last year. In this volume, we follow one of the characters we met previously, Ryan Cusack. A few years down the line, he’s twenty and dealing drugs, and his girlfriend Karine, who means everything to him, is starting to lose patience. McInerney ties in many of the characters we met in Heresies, but this time the atmosphere is darker: there are more beatings, a mock-execution. There’s still humour, though, and the insults are fabulous (“his head is just something that keeps his ears apart” being one of my favourites). I’m just not sure it rises to the heights of Heresies, but I can’t put my finger on why.

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hands-down favourite: I liked a lot of the books I read in April, but none of them are going to stay with me like The Fact of a Body. Written by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a qualified lawyer with an MFA, it’s part true crime narrated in flawless novelistic prose, part attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Marzano-Lesnevich’s own abusive past. She does this by facing their echoes in the case of Ricky Langley, who admitted to killing a little boy called Jeremy Guillory in 1993. It’s a stunning piece of work: never sensationalistic, never sentimental, always sharply intelligent about the law and human nature, and yet full of understanding. I absolutely adored it. I want it to be huge.

most unabashed comfort reading: Turns out these days, when I need to recharge my brain, I go for spies and murder. (This is why I think I’m getting old. Isn’t this what old people do? Curl up with a cosy mystery and a crossword? At least I don’t do crosswords.) Fortunately neither of these were especially cosy: not Mick Herron’s Dead Lions, the second in the Slough House books, nor Tana French’s The Secret Place, one of her Dublin Murder Squad books, this one set in a girl’s school. Dead Lions isn’t quite as good as Slow Horses: the wisecracking humour starts to wear thin, and the plot is, frankly, farcical and unnecessary (no one cares about the Cold War anymore, and trying to revive it – especially after Herron put his finger on the pulse in terms of real national security trends in his first book – seems like a misguided attempt to cash in on Le Carre comparisons.) But The Secret Place is, I think, one of French’s best books, because it is so explicit about the things that interest her as an author: friendship as an almost mystical force, and what happens when that force is subjected to outside influences, what happens when loving people isn’t enough. Reading it almost felt like relief: she’s a writer I trust implicitly.

most unexpected surprise: Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s new novel, which I’ll be reviewing very soon. It starts with the disappearance of a young girl in a Peak District village, and promptly fails to fulfill every one of our expectations about stories that start with the disappearance of a young girl. It’s also the best evocation I have ever read of modern English village life.

up next: I’m currently reading China Miéville’s The City and the City, with almost equal measures of enjoyment and mild confusion, as Miéville’s fiction tends to make me feel. For the rest of the month, I’ve got some fantastic proofs, including Tench by Inge Schilperoord, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, and The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith.

January Superlatives

For the first time ever, I have signed up to a year-long Goodreads Reading Challenge. Don’t ask me why. My target is 150 books, which should be achievable since I read 141 last year (possibly my highest total since records began back in 2007). This month I read 17, which, Goodreads informs me, puts me 5 books ahead of schedule. Thank goodness their algorithms are keeping track of the maths for that, because I wouldn’t know how.

best short story collection: Virgin by April Ayers Lawson is an extremely technically impressive collection; she’s one of those young American writers whose prose is planed smooth and wouldn’t look out of place in The New Yorker. I can’t say that this collection moved me very deeply, but that’s not always a bad thing. Her take on fundamentalism and sexual awakening is interesting and well worth the read.

best comfort rereads: Split, this one, between Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. I’m now leaning on French’s murder mysteries for mental distraction in busy times; Broken Harbour focuses on the murder of almost an entire family in an Irish ghost estate, one of those places that was half-built during the Celtic Tiger boom and then abandoned by the contractors during the recession. It’s terrific, and terrifying, on the psychology of being broke and jobless. I Capture the Castle probably needs no introduction; I read it after a week of consuming media mostly about death and torment, longing for comfort and uplift. It delivered, as it always does.

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best tragedy: His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s full of horrible petty officials oppressing hardworking Scottish crofters, and unreliable narration, and raped sisters, and dead sheep, in a way that recalls Britain’s seemingly unshakable love of the historical costume drama. However, it’s all done with an extremely skillful voice. I can entirely see how this swayed the Booker Prize jury, and why it’s been the best-selling of last year’s shortlist.

best state-of-the-nation novel: Laura Kaye’s terrific debut, English Animals, about a young Slovakian woman whose experience working for a rich but struggling English couple reveals the prejudices of this country with wondrous slyness. Appropriate post-Brexit, but full of truths that apply not just to this immediate moment, but to English culture throughout the ages.

party I was late to: How had I not read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s collaboration, Good Omens, until now? It’s a wonderful, hilarious, generous novel about the Antichrist (as you would expect), featuring a no-nonsense witch named Anathema Device, a Satanic Nun of the Chattering Order of St Beryl (who later becomes a businesswoman running corporate management courses), a Witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer, and a demon/angel duo who don’t actually want the world to end at all. Its cult status is fully deserved, and I loved it.

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best escapism: You’d think this would be one of my comfort rereads, but no! This month I read volume 1 of Brian Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’s graphic novel Saga. It starts with a childbirth scene. The cover features a breastfeeding woman. There is an interracial couple from opposite sides of a galactic war. There is a sarcastic teenage ghost and a spider-lady assassin and an animal called Lying Cat (which I particularly like; it’s blue and has pointy ears and croaks the word “LYING” whenever anyone tries to fib in its vicinity.) I can’t wait to order volume 2.

best city novel: Chibundu Onuzo’s second novel, Welcome to Lagos. It follows a group of unlikely comrades—from two soldiers who reject their colonel’s acts of cruelty in the Nigerian Delta, to a runaway middle-class wife, to a chancing teenager with radio dreams named Fineboy—as they try to live without money, papers or qualifications in a city that chews people up and spits them out. There’s a political plot, too, but I thought it was most effective in its portrait of how ordinary people build trust between themselves.

Annual Winter Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow managed to escape secondary school without ever having read. More interesting, I think, for its dissection of how revolutionary fervour can turn into a massacre of the innocent than for its nominal plot (noble self-sacrifice tugs my heartstrings well enough, but I resent it).

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best intellectual romp: Joanna Kavenna’s bizarre, inventive, beautiful novel A Field Guide to Reality. Set in a sort of otherworldly Oxford (where there are still waitresses and the Cowley Road, but the colleges are named things like Pie Hall and Nightingale Hall and there’s a Unicorn Street), it shifts between the thirteenth century and the present day, and deals with ideas about light and optics, perception, grief, and the nature of reality. It handles huge questions with a kind of boundless, sarcastic creativity that I really enjoyed. It also contains gorgeous illustrations by Olly Ralfe. Highly recommended, especially if you like slightly weird shit.

best anti-Tr*mp reading: The Good Immigrant, a crowdfunded collection of essays about the experience of being an ethnic minority in Britain. This is one of those books that makes you more aware of things: the way you look at people in public, the way you hold your body on the train or the words you use to friends and coworkers, and the consequences those actions might have. Some of the essays are more creative and interesting than others, and there are a few that felt theoretical in a way detrimental to engaging with them, but I’m happy to admit that this may be my problem.

best “commercial” read: Katie Khan’s Hold Back the Stars, which doesn’t do much with its sci-fi window dressing but which does tell a touching love story, and might very well get readers who wouldn’t normally be keen on genre more interested.

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induced worst case of location envy: The Enchanted April, obviously. I’d seen the film (it’s one of my mum’s favourites) but not read the Elizabeth von Arnim novel it’s based on until now. It follows four Edwardian women, each unhappy in their own way, who together rent an Italian castle for a month, and the ways in which sunshine and liberty change their lives. You might be thinking of it as an early Eat Pray Love, but it’s much less solipsistic, and much more charming. The garden descriptions are sublime.

most nightmarish: Julia Scheeres’s memoir of child religious, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, Jesus Land. It is unrelenting. I had several problems with it, one of which was the way she recounts experience at the expense of analysis (ask me about this if you’re not sure what I mean; explaining would take a while) and another of which was the way that she keeps foregrounding her own experience while maintaining that this is really a book about her adopted black brother David. Still. Oof.

categorically, not-a-shadow-of-a-doubt, best fucking book this month: The Underground Railroad. Y’all will know about this by now: Oprah loves it, Obama loves it, it won the National Book Award. If I know some of you, you’ll be avoiding it purely because of the attention it’s been getting. Don’t do that with this book. Do it with all the others, but not with this one. It’s too good, too heartbreaking, too well constructed, too evocative and simultaneously subtle and clear, too much of a body slam, too likely to make you think deeply and for long about why America’s present looks as it does, for you to put it off. It’s that rare thing, a novel that both invests you in its characters and story and effortlessly incorporates wider thematic concerns. I can barely talk about it without worrying that I’m not doing it justice. Just read it, for heaven’s sake.

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most disproportionately affecting: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, which I’ll be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Telling the story of a walking-on-eggshells marriage and glancing back at wife Neve’s childhood and early adult life, it’s one of those books that doesn’t have a clear-cut moral, but which simply provides a kind of snapshot. I ended up mentally turning it over and over, finding each time that I understood more about the characters and their decisions. It’s an extremely insightful novel.

best murder mystery: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel The Pledge is being republished by Pushkin Vertigo next month. I’m also reviewing it for Shiny, so I won’t say too much here – just that the story of Inspector Matthäi’s doomed obsession with the murderer of schoolchild Gritli Moser is exactly as calculated an affront to the conventions of the detective novel as the publicity material says.

up next: A couple of proof copies for February remain to be read: Dorthe Nors’s Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, about a middle-aged woman learning to drive, and Rick Bass’s collected stories, For A Little While. I also REALLY want to read some of the books longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize (for best book by a BAME author in the UK), and am looking forward to picking my first!

Meanwhile, At Litro: Hubert and Urban Isolation

My latest column for Litro is up. In it, I talk about Ben Gijseman’s graphic novel Hubert, about loneliness as opposed to being alone, and about how creating art requires a connection with another person. It’s not quite a review. Hope you enjoy it!

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March Superlatives

I read thirteen books this month, thanks to panic over my review pile, my eighty minutes a day of commuting time, and the four-day Easter weekend. I’ve reviewed eight and a half of them (one of the pieces I wrote this month, a column for Litro that’ll be published soon, was about a book but not precisely a review of it), which means that Superlatives may be a kind of irrelevance. (I also plan to review the final book read this month early in April.) Still, as Vicky of Eve’s Alexandria has it, it’s good to write about everything I’ve read, and there’s a lot to say about these, so here we go.

most seriously unnerving: Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, which features an uncomfortably weird protagonist and a tense noir plot. I found myself uncertain what was going to happen next (unusual) and desperate to find out (even more unusual), but it’s Eileen’s bizarre psychology that really pulls you in.

quietest punch: An odd category, I know, but E.C. Osondu’s short story collection-cum-novella, This House Is Not For Sale, goes down in one sitting and hangs around hauntingly for a while longer. Told through the eyes of a little boy whose tyrannical grandfather is the patriarch of a family house in Lagos, it’s unsparing in its observations of how people wield power in a microcosm.

best Old-Fashioned Storytelling: This, I’ve decided, is a tie between two books. The first is Freya, by Anthony Quinn, which bounds from Oxford to Nuremberg to Fleet Street. It’s not stylistically challenging or innovative, but it’s impeccably written and the plot derives from the complex humanity of the characters and their motives—my favourite kind. The second is Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, which you’d think wouldn’t qualify at all, since it’s composed of film scripts and voiceovers and advertisements as well as just straight prose. It’s all about storytelling, though, and in its own beautiful, extravagant way, its storyline is Good and Old-Fashioned. I loved them both.

most resonant: I’ve been seeing echoes of Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City ever since I finished it. Exploring artistic representations of, and negotiations with, urban loneliness, it’s a book with incredible contemporary relevance. Even if you don’t like nonfiction (especially if you don’t like nonfiction), I’d really recommend this.

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bit anticlimactic: Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost right after The Lonely City was probably unwise. It’s a completely different approach to a very similar subject, and I felt as though  Laing had simply managed to get more out of it by virtue of her depth. I did get some interesting stuff out of Solnit’s book, about the captivity narratives of European settlers in  North America who were kidnapped by Native Americans (this is a whole subgenre of American colonial literature), but mostly it felt undercooked. Depressing, as I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas. Maybe I should try another of hers.

possibly shouldn’t have been a novel: Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days, about riots in south London, felt more like a sketch for a miniseries. An excellent idea that read very visually and that lacked the in-depth characterisation that novels are designed to deliver better than any other art form. Would love to see it on ITV, though.

most heartening re: the younger generation: Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, a feminist fairy tale of a YA book that I’ll be reviewing in Shiny New Books next week. It’s about an isolationist community composed solely of women, and about how they respond when gender-based violence comes to their front door. The writing had the breathless over-eagerness common to a lot of YA novels, but I’m willing to overlook that for the utter organic wonderfulness of what this book is actually saying. (Which is: girl, you are more powerful than you have ever known.)

best time-killer: It seems like damning with faint praise, but I had two and a half hours to kill in Highbury before my singing lesson last week, and I passed most of them in a Thai restaurant with Jason Gurley’s novel Eleanor and some spring rolls. Time travel, intergenerational conflict, shame, bereavement, and alcoholism all get a look in, but Gurley avoids soap opera with marvelous emotional dexterity. I was quite impressed—though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, as the book was apparently in gestation for fifteen years.

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best surprise: I made a start on the Baileys Prize long list with Kate Atkinson’s A God In Ruins, which has been lauded to the skies and will almost certainly win. Was terribly grumpy about reading it and spent a good fifteen minutes muttering about how annoying WWII novels are before actually cracking it open. I was so wrong! It’s not really a war novel, although there’s a lot of exploration of how the war affects those who survived it and the subsequent generations. I was a bit disappointed by the ceaseless authorial hatred for one character whose only crime, as far as I could tell, was that she was an imperfect and selfish mother. Obviously not a role model, but the book seemed surprisingly judgmental of her. Other than that, wonderfully fluid writing and characters that jumped off the page, in a convincing way. Bits of it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years.

most heartrending:  Hubert by Ben Gijsemans. A graphic novel with almost no words, by a Belgian artist, about a lonely middle-aged Belgian man who visits art museums and barely ever talks to anyone. It can be devoured in a single sitting, or pored over at leisure; Gijsemans’s drawings are plain at first glance but full of detail the longer you look. Hubert is a wonderful creation. His sad little face and glasses do the same thing to my heart that Wall-E’s character design did (i.e. stomp on it). This is also a great book to read in conjunction with The Lonely City, since it’s basically a case study of how individuals medicate their own isolation with art. It’s really beautiful and made me all sad and hopeful at the end.

biggest disappointment: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, director of the National Gallery.  It was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize, though it won’t win, and hopefully won’t even make the shortlist. It’s a sweet idea (a down-on-her-luck woman finds a priceless Watteau painting in a junk shop; everyone in the art world decides they want it) but executed in a very Eat-Pray-Love sort of way. The main character’s mother is an alcoholic and the conversations they have are so full of psychological jargon that I wasn’t at all convinced two people would talk to each other like that. Also, Rothschild doesn’t get contractions: all of her characters say things like “I will do this” or “You do not see that”, instead of “I’ll” or “You don’t”. It’s not for emphasis, either, and it happens for 404 pages, first to last. Do trade fiction editors even turn up to work anymore? grump grump Positive aspects include the fact that there are divine descriptions of food in it, and the “mild peril” (as film ratings boards say) is rather fun.

and, getting in under the wire: Relativity by Antonia Hayes, which I finished this evening and can’t think of a superlative for at the moment because it’s still percolating through my head. I have to come up with a few questions for Hayes, whose publicist has kindly granted me a Q&A with her; I think about half of them will be to do with this specific book, and half will be to do with writing (especially as a debut novelist) more generally. For now, you should know that it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who was badly shaken as a baby and who is now growing into his intellectual gift for maths and physics, trying to piece together the truth about his estranged father. The writing is tidy and competent and the plot is pretty good stuff too. More on this soon.

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what next: I’ve borrowed Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North from a colleague (it was published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), and have borrowed the Chaos’s mum’s Kobo, which has The System of the World on it. I also want to get through more Baileys Prize longlist books–maybe The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet next?–and have got a few books from publishers for April, including Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which looks amazing. It’s going to be a wonderful spring.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Best Books of May, Part One

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do forQuadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month. Here’s the first part of May’s list, featuring novels about a religious cult and a Spanish Civil War veteran’s suicide; nonfiction on global feminism and the unfairly forgotten Sir Thomas Browne; and a debut poetry collection by Anglo-Chinese Sarah Howe.

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