Posts Tagged With: Varian Johnson

An Early Summer Reading List


I have not been thinking very bookishly lately, I’ll admit. I have also not been reading so much as I’ve been writing.  Brian and I are STILL plugging through re-writes of the novel, although we are getting about 4 chapters done per week.  My original self-imposed deadline was August 1, but I have amended that to September 1st.

I am giving up on my summer reading challenge, and so I’ll post what I’ve read so far down below.  I didn’t get nearly as much read as I wanted to, and for that I am a bit upset with myself.  I am keeping all those books on the To Be Read pile, though, and hope that I will get to them soon.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is top on the list.  I’m giving up because I’ve just lost the will-power.

It was SO HARD to keep to this challenge.  I can’t even express.  I am used to being able to grab books on a whim and read them, whatever the subject. I expected that Person Of Color books would be harder to find, that I would have to look longer and deeper to find them.  What I didn’t expect was that I would NEVER find a book about certain topics by POC.  This was especially true in the non-fiction realm, and even more so in History.  I mean, I decided I wanted to read about the California Mission system and could not find a book that wasn’t written by a white author.  THE CALIFORNIA MISSION SYSTEM, guys. If that isn’t ironic, I don’t know what is.

I am a white historian, and it still made me horrified a bit to realize that our history, perhaps especially the history of POC, is largely being written by white people.  It makes me distrust everything just a smidge.  Like, I’m sure all the facts are correct but there has to be an angle on this stuff that isn’t being explored; that didn’t even occur to us.  What are we missing that we don’t even know about?  I’m certain we are missing something.  It makes me uneasy.

I fell in love with several new authors, though.  The last time I did a summer reading challenge, I actually enjoyed only about 4 of the books and read thirty six (The Graveyard Book, Of Plimoth Plantation, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Watership Down, if you’re wondering).  This time I enjoyed SO MANY, and only read twelve.  In that respect, it was a success.

I can only wrangle myself so much, and so I’m letting myself go back to comfort books while I try to keep myself on track to finishing this novel.  I am leaving this challenge with a greater determination to fold books by POC into my regular reading habits.  I am counting the days until Renee Ahdieh releases that sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn.  I’m following Varian Johnson and Jenny Han on Social Media.

Here are the books:

  1. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – I was unsatisfied by the ending, because I didn’t feel like either boy was really good enough. But there were so many parts of this book that felt imminently familiar, especially the dregs of how we all try to cope when the capable one is gone (even if they are just a phone call away).  A GREAT read.
  2. The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han – I did not know that a book could replicate so much of my own life. There are differences, of course, but living in someone else’s house by the beach every summer is something I’m very familiar with.  The book broke my heart, in the best way.
  3. Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis – Weird to be in the head of an unreliable, and not that bright narrator. Bud falls for some stuff he shouldn’t (heads I win, tails you lose?).  But I can ultimately see why it won the awards it did, and it’s a great slice of depression-era life.  Plus music, how can you not appreciate a kid with a saxophone?
  4. The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh – Holy CRAP is this book good. I could not put it down. I have been longing for a more feminist Scherezade tale, and wondering if I should write it (and how I would), but this is it tenfold.  Better than I could imagine, everything I’ve wanted.  Could not put it down.
  5. Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson – In a setting completely foreign to me, but great just the same. It’s about the juxtaposition of good Christians and bad Christians, self-fulfilling prophecies, and  the nature of goodness.  I loved Maddie and her spunk so much.
  6. Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan – A beautifully written book that deals with a lot of the problems facing migrants and others during depression-era America. Esperanza’s growth was less than I would like, though.  Ryan leaves a lot unresolved with strike issues etc. in the end.
  7. We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han – Not as good as the first “Summer” book, but still good. I do like the way Belly is just as flawed and makes as many mistakes as the boys, even though it makes me exasperated with her sometimes. Is the parental story happening in the wings more exciting than the kids’ in this book?
  8. Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston – Not my favorite, because THE ENTIRE THING was written in phonetic spelling; i.e.: hard to read. After I got about ½ way through part one, I skipped it and went to the Voodoo stuff at the end.  More an anthropological curiosity than something I enjoyed.  I loved Tell My Horse, so go read that one instead.
  9. S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han – Why do I always want Han’s leads to get together with the one they don’t? It’s frustrating.  But it’s also so good, and I can’t stop reading them.  Rooting for the wrong guy at least keeps me guessing.
  10. Kindred by Octavia Butler – Holy crap. I was expecting it to be hard to take, but not THAT bad… trigger warning for  rape and huge amounts of violence.  It’s well written and compelling, though.  Hard to put down, it’s just that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pick it back up once I had put it down. Didn’t finish it because I was having nightmares, but maybe I’ll go back.
  11. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier – A strange mashup of literary fiction and high school coming of age. I liked it, but I didn’t feel pulled by it.  It was beautiful, but didn’t possess me.  Perhaps it was just that I hated Gwen a bit and didn’t understand why everyone else loved her so, especially Dimple.
  12. Same Sun Here by Neela Vaswani and Silas House – CRAZY good, although I do wish that each of the protags got a little bit more of an ending.  Especially Meena, who I felt didn’t have as much of an arc as River.  But it was a beautiful book, nice to see contemporary issues represented, and a well-done exploration of Redneck/Immigrant stereotypes and the problems both groups face – similar yet different.
  13. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz – Oh SO good. I loved rooting for the boys and their complicated lives, but I loved the writing so much, too.  Deserving of all the awards it won.

You should also know that I cheated (full-disclusure) and read:

  1. When Beauty Tamed The Beast by Eloisa James – I just CAN’T get over these names… can’t we call them something less embarrassing? But this one, I think, was her best yet.  The men in romance novels often don’t feel real, but Piers was such an ass that he was perfect.  Or maybe I’m just married to a rather endearing ass myself.
  2. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman – The resolution seemed a bit easy to me, but otherwise this book was perfect. I love that his children’s books have hard things in them, and that this one was about Norse Gods.  His writing is so beautiful.
  3. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Oh, this book is my favorite thing ever. I fell in love with it the first time because of the Cath/Levi relationship.  I fell in love with it this time for the Cath/Regan relationship, and the quips.  Which I kept reading out loud to my husband, who laughed in all the right places.
  4. Sunshine by Robin McKinley – I forgot how violent this book is. But Con, man… You have to love him even while he frightens you.  The world is so robust that I wish there were more books.  McKinley has said there won’t be, though.  As vampire books go, it’s one of the best.
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Books I’ve Drooled Over


The last time I did a summer reading challenge, it didn’t really work out that well.  It was the summer before I entered Chapman, the last summer I knew I might have some time before I was bogged down in scholarship 24/7, 365 (summer classes, man.  And winter interterm).  The challenge was to read ALL new books – nothing that I had ever read before.  For a gal who nurses comfort books like they’re going out of style, that was quite a challenge.  I managed it, but I read 37 books that summer and only 4 of them were books I loved enough for them to matter (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Watership Down, The Graveyard Book, and Of Plymouth Plantation, if you’re interested).

I have had much better luck with this challenge.  So far, of the eighteen books I’ve read, only 3 of them are books I didn’t love.  Several have been can’t-put-it-down all night reads.  These are the one’s I’m about to tell you about.  And recommend that you try them too.  Here they are:

The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh: I love fairy tale re-mixes, and I have been wanting an Arabian Nights tale for SO LONG.  I can’t even tell you.  I even thought about writing it myself, if I could get a concept figured out.  That’s how badly I wanted this thing.  And it’s here, in it’s perfect gilt package, and it is glorious.

First of all, Shazi is awesome.  She’s there to kill the king before he can kill her.  Who doesn’t love a super-spunky protagonist?  And then there’s also Khalid and his really horrible secret, and his hotness, and his hostile kingdom.  The world feels dangerous as well as beautiful, and it has a magical component that is so epically huge that it’s impossible to understand how much it influences the foundations of everything, because in the beginning it feels like it’s only for background atmosphere.

Shazi basically doesn’t get a good opportunity to kill the king for a while and then finds herself falling in love with him.  He also starts to fall in love with her, and then he has to make this horrible choice between her life or the entire kingdom.  They’re married, too, so there’s a lot of hot sexual tension (and sex, although not in any detail – it’s more that you know it’s happening in the cut-away), which is unusual for a YA novel.  But in the wings there is Khalid’s abusive father, a pregnant lady-in-waiting, Shazi’s failed magician father, her childhood crush who wants to rescue her, and a whole host of natural disaster.

My only real beef with the novel is that it’s a cliff-hanger.  Usually that’s a deal-breaker for me, but with this one it isn’t.  Instead of my usual ‘my God, guys – how much money do you want from me?’ attitude about cliff-hangers, I’m just ready to throw a party that there will be MORE (!!!).  This is the best thing I’ve read this summer.  It’s so good I might even read everything Renée Ahdieh writes for the rest of her/my life.  All I can say is that the next one better come out soon or I may die of waiting.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: In this book, Belly goes with her mother every summer to live in Aunt Susannah’s beach house (not her real aunt, but her mother’s college roommate).  It’s just the moms and the kids in the house most of the time – Belly, her brother, and Susannah’s two boys.  The husbands are present only in small days, in glimpses and weekends.  Only this summer everything is different.  The boys that Belly has had a crush on for as long as she can remember seem to have a crush on her back.  There’s a bittersweet feeling that they’re growing up and this summer might be the last one; and then they get positive evidence that yes, this is the last.  This is it.  It all will end.

I do not know how Jenny Han captured my childhood so completely, but she did.  We used to spend huge chunks of the summer on the Southern Maine coast – first at my grandfather’s house in Biddeford Pool and then at my Aunt’s house on Gooserocks Beach.  When my grandfather had a house, Aunt Nancy used to rent hers.  She and Uncle Dennis would move out for the month we were there, leaving Alysson and Leah behind – five girls in a tiny two-bedroom cottage sharing three beds and a pull-out couch.  If two people were in the bathroom, one of them was standing in the shower.  Those are some of my fondest memories, all of us stacked together, running free in the ocean and playing house on the granite rocks.  This book captures that, and all the losses in between when we knew how bad the property taxes were, and we too knew it was all ending, too.

One of my favorite things about Jenny Han’s books is that I always end up rooting for the guy the main character doesn’t get together with at the end.  I think it’s a testament to how real her characters are, and how flawed.  People always look more perfect when you don’t know them as well, don’t they?  I love that I can’t count on anything with her.  Everything is a surprise, even while it feels like something I’ve already lived.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: This is basically a book about a friendship that blossoms into a deep love over the span of about two years.  Dante and Ari meet at the swimming pool one summer, and they become inseparable after that.  They’re as different as they can be on the outside, but on the inside they’re the same.  Neither of them has come from a wealthy background.  Ari has a brother who was sent to prison, a father who fought in Vietnam, and a propensity to talk about nothing at all.  Dante feels the deep burden of being an only child, wants to talk about everything, and is friendly but friendless.

It’s a good story.  A coming of age thing where both boys are trying desperately to figure out who they are and if they can live with who they are.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it because of the plot.  But what I really fell in love with was the writing.  Sáenz starts off using very simple language, easy thoughts and plenty of juvenile tags to the letters and journals he samples from both boys.  But as their lives deepen, so does the writing style.  And his use of imagery and foreshadowing made me thing of Fante’s masterpiece “Ask The Dust.”  With the added benefit that I didn’t want to murder any of the protagonists for being whiny like I did when I read Fante. It’s a beautiful thing.

Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson: I picked up Johnson’s novel because I liked “The Great Greene Heist” so much.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.  Joshua is the preacher’s son, and is reunited with his childhood crush Maddie (a preacher’s daughter with a bad-girl image) when she comes back to town to stay with her aunt.  I think I was expecting it to be this thing where she’s bad and he succumbs to it while renouncing his faith or something.  I was expecting drama and drugs and high school hijinks.

Instead I got this lovely story about dichotomies and assumptions.  Maddie struggles with who she is vs who she’s told she should be, and what attempting to live up to her label has cost her.  Joshua learns to have opinions, to rely on more than his parents, to find a deeper faith through reason and questioning.  Both of them learn that parents aren’t perfect, even the good ones, and that love doesn’t really trump all.  Not when there are so many other things in play.  The whole book is a fight about good and bad, and if we can really assign those titles to anyone without knowing the full story.  With some bonus making out to keep things steamy, of course.

I think what I like most about this novel, though, is that it gave me a different perspective on the world.  It felt like my own in a lot of ways, but Joshua’s life centered around things that are foreign to me.  My horizons were broadened. And that was the point of this whole exercise in the first place, wasn’t it?

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Summer Reading List, 2014


Tomorrow is orientation day.  I will be checking Freshman into dorms and handing parents welcome packets.  That means that summer is officially over, I think.  I don’t know why that should be such a sad thing.  After all, summer doesn’t mean anything different than the rest of the year when there is a full time job to work.  But there is something about knowing that the days will get colder and darker that makes the end of summer seem like the end of something bigger.

Here is the list of all the things I’ve read this season with a brief review.  28 titles for just three months is pretty good, I think!  That’s a few more than last year.  Also, you’re not allowed to judge me for my love of smutty fantasy literature.  That is in the (invisible, hypothetical) contract we have together.  

Summer Reading List:

  1. Bon Courage by Ken McAdams – It really wasn’t written well, but there was something about the idyllic life fixing up a house in the French countryside that made me want to know what happened. Old people sex advisory…
  2. The Dark Lord of Dirkholm by Diana Wynne Jones – Hilarious because I know the D&D genre, but at times a bit slow. Magical creatures and this fabulous world make it worth the read, though. Dragons, griffins, and flying pigs!
  3. The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson – From the Blitz at the Fitz to the Mid Day PDA, to the awesome way these kids run a heist to make sure Gaby wins the school election, I fell in love. Can I have a Jr. High career as cool as these guys do?
  4. Popular by Maya Van Wagenen – Watching her navigate 1950s world in today’s less tolerant (supposedly) version was hilarious, mostly thanks to her great sense of humor. Bonus points for giant girdle pictures and 4-butt diagrams.
  5. Clever Maids, the Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz –I never realized that these stories were never for children, nor did I realize how much women had a part in collecting them. A great, easy to read history.
  6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott –When I read the bit where Amy cries over her math problems, I remembered why I fell in love and binge-read this book in my early teens. We may be 150 years apart, but I know those feels, Amy. I really do.
  7. Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott – It’s like ointment for the crazy writer in my soul. Plus, it’s funny, and I’m beginning (to my chagrin) realize that it’s all true. All of it. Even the neurotic bits that I don’t want to be real.
  8. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons– A novel published in the 1930s to make fun of the popular country novel style of the time, and oh, so funny in the quirkiest way! I was laughing aloud enough to keep Brian awake. Sorry, dear.
  9. The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allen Poe – It took me a minute to get into the Victorian style again, but it was a VERY interesting look into his process. It’s so methodical, despite the high emotional content of his writings.
  10. Typhoid Mary by Anthony Bordain – Lots of fun, but… He’s goes overboard just to shock and disgust, and judges Mary by modern standards. Both are taboo when analyzing History. I loved it, recommend it, but wouldn’t take it too seriously.  
  11. Train by Tom Zoellner – Beautiful and languid and not at all compelling. I like that I can put it down and pick it up at will. I can revel in beautiful language and scenery, and not think too much. But I liked A Safeway in Arizona better.
  12. Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J. B. West– Simple, but interesting to see what it was like to serve everyone from the Roosevelts onward. He concentrates on the families as people, not politics. I couldn’t put it down.
  13. The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede – I’m a fan of hers. This one had a bunch of tropes that usually annoy the crap out of me but didn’t seem to in this incarnation. It was essentially a D&D campaign, but it didn’t read like that at all.
  14. The Twisted Tower, by Patricia C. Wrede – Okay, I’m totally hooked on the Lyra novels now. I might need to stop soon, so I don’t spend every night up until 1 am because I can’t put the books down. There are a ton more…
  15. Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King – yup, I’m re-reading this one because it’s so helpful. I’m suffering from a lack of ideas right now, which means I bone up on technique until I have some. No rest for the wicked.
  16. Shadow Magic, by Patricia C. Wrede – Not as charming as the others. I actually stopped about 1/3 of the way through because I still couldn’t tell what the plot was and, unlike her others, the writing wasn’t compelling. Unpleasantly surprised.
  17. Chalice, by Robin McKinley – A re-read. I love this book so much it’s unquantifiable, because nothing and everything happens. It’s all internal. There is a half fire demon Master, grieving land, and so many bees. I want to move here.
  18. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine– I think she sometimes goes a little off the deep end disproving a point or two that laypeople don’t care about, but overall it’s been fascinating to learn how much expectation influences brain performance.
  19. Looking for Alaska, by John Greene – I knew I couldn’t handle TFIOS, but I wanted on the bandwagon. HOLY CRAP. Totally good, but still super sad. I laughed, I cried, I loved those boarding school boys and their antics. I loved Alaska too.
  20. The Hero and The Crown, Robin McKinley – Another re-read about damaged Aerin and her damaged horse, who eventually take on dragons of many kinds. The ending is interesting, too, because she gets her prince and she doesn’t at the same time.
  21. An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green – Oh John Green, you’re books are SO GOOD. This one has a grand theorem of dumping, a pig from hell, the body of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, anagrams, Islam, 19 Katherines, and a dark cave.
  22. The Graveyard Book, Graphic Novel by Neil Gaiman – I love this book, and the graphic novel is a delight. I recommend reading the book first, but the expressions and art in this one! Each chapter is by a different artist. I can’t wait for volume 2.  
  23. The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green – Fun and quippy, even as it’s also the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever read. This is the only book this season that struck me and changed the way I think of things forever. I did not expect that.
  24. The Elements of Style by William Struck Jr. – This is so much more of a reference book and not an outright reading book. I’m glad I have it, but I didn’t finish it. I’ll go back and peruse when I need specific answers on formatting, etc.
  25. Cupcakes, Trinkets, and Other Deadly Magic by Meghan Ciana Doidge– A self-pub and I liked it! Language wasn’t polished and it was definitely a paranormal romance. But the story line was so good that none of it mattered. I bought book 2.
  26. Graveyard Shift by Lana Harvey – Another with language that isn’t super polished, and the end was slow in arriving, but the world this book is set in!! So cool! The main character is quippy, there’s plenty of underworld “celeb sightings.” So fun.
  27. Cobweb Bride by Vera Nazarian– the writing is beautiful, the story concept is interesting. I had to stop reading it, though. Graphic war descriptions where no one dies are not good for lunch hour. And that’s all the time I have to read right now…
  28. Trinkets, Treasures, and other Bloody Magic by Meghan Ciana Doidge– Full of gratuitous sex, but that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. It was exactly what I expected it to be. Lots of fun, lots of adventure, and lots of supernatural twenties angst.
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Book Review: Middle Grade Goodness

Greene Popular

I’ll admit it.  I struck gold last weekend.  Have you been following the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag on Twitter?  It blew up probably three weeks ago now, and it’s been pretty great.  I found an amazing resource for people wanting to write diverse characters that are outside their experience, here:, which was only one among many things I learned.  I also learned about The Great Greene Heist, and Popular.  Basically, these books were a fest of stuff outside my experience, and I loved them.  After all, experiencing new things is the best reason to read ever.

The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson:

There’s a movement behind this book founded on a single principle: in America capitalism rules – we all have to put our money where our mouths are in order to ensure that diverse books keep being published.  If we could get one on the Bestseller list, that would be even better.  That’s how I came across The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson.  In a bid to show people that diverse books can make money, publishers, booksellers, and authors are banding together behind this book to make it a best seller.  Kate Messner’s website has more on this, here:  It’s a story with a Black protagonist, a Hispanic love interest, and a very diverse cast of characters pulling a heist for the good of the school.  Most importantly it features the protagonist, Jackson Greene, prominently on the cover.  It does a great job of including all the things people say they want when they want diverse books.

If I read middle grade, I usually read fantasy.  I will admit that I wouldn’t have purchased the book without urging.  Still, I figured that it was worth the ten bucks just to support a movement that only good can come from.  I was rewarded tenfold.  Ten bucks was more than worth it for the entertainment I gained.  I loved, loved, loved the book.  Can I say loved one more time?

The basic plot is this: Keith is trying to buy his way into becoming class president, and along the way he has plans to slash the budgets of every club that isn’t his beloved Gamer Club.  Gaby, the gal who should be president, isn’t sure what to do.  Especially because she has an honest and smart platform that Keith keeps stealing.  It’s all up to Jackson to stand up to middle school authority and  run a heist guaranteeing Gaby a win – despite her protestations that he shouldn’t and his certain expulsion if he fails.

From the Blitz at the Fitz to the Mid-Day PDA, to all of Jackson’s gutsy ideas, I was hooked so fast.  If the Thomas Crown Affair and Ocean’s 11 happened in a junior high, this book would be it.  There is even a set of con rules.  If I could have been half as confident or as fun as these kids are at that age, I bet Junior High wouldn’t have been as terrible.  Johnson’s characterizations were spot on as well, avoiding cliche and treating racial issues with maturity and respect.  This is a book about people in a school that feels so real, with just a smidgen of utopia thrown in to make it irresistible.

The bonus part of this equation is Varian Johnson.  I didn’t know about his writing before picking up this book.  Most of his older stuff is the kind of thing I read: books for adults.  I can’t even tell you how happy that makes me, because probably 75% of the new stuff I read is just not worth talking about.  This is good new stuff, guys!

So the long and short of it is that I would have told you to go buy the book anyway to support diversity, but the quality of the work makes me say it WAY more emphatically: this one is worth your time.

Popular, by Maya Van Wagenen:

At the urging of her mother, Maya Van Wagenen decides to follow the advice of a self-help book her father unearthed from the attic.  The book was written in the 1950s by a woman named Betty and she’ll follow it all to the letter, keeping a diary in between.  While the concept is a cute one, it’s really Maya’s situation that makes the book unusual.  She’s living in a town on the Texas/Mexico border where there are constant drug dogs and alarms where they have to shelter in the multipurpose room and keep silent because of police activity. That’s a lot of pressure for middle school.  Maya is chipper throughout it all.

This book is just great.  I was attracted by the paper dolls on the cover (I’m a sucker for paper dolls), but I cracked the spine and couldn’t put it down because of Maya’s strong (and often funny) voice.  The book started with the sweetest forward by Betty about Maya which swept me off my feet.  Despite the huge differences in circumstance, Betty’s words ring true and are still helpful to Maya.  That’s what was most mind-blowing to me.

The pictures in the book were my favorite parts, as were the times when Maya had to follow anything that clearly wasn’t applicable advice anymore.  Like her cotton gloves, huge straw hat with a bow, and pearls that she has to wear to church all the time.  Or the gigantic girdle.  The diagram she draws of how the girdle rides up and gives her four butts is especially amazing.

So, in short, this book is another one I highly recommend.  I burned through it in only a day because I couldn’t put it down.  It’s rare these days that I read two books in a single weekend but I just did.  I wish I had this kind of luck with all the new books I pick up!

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