Booknotized

A place to think, reflect, and talk (mostly to myself) about books I love…and a few that I don't.

Series Review: The 39 Clues February 27, 2012

Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: 2008 – Present
Series: The 39 Clues 1-10; The 39 Clues: Vespers Rising; The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers 1-3+
Age Group: 9-12
Genre: Action-Adventure
Pages: various (from 150 – 327)
Source: provided by publisher as reference for freelance work (see below)
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5★; Execution 3.5★

Amy and Dan Cahill are just two regular kids. Amy’s shy and quiet; Dan’s rowdy and hilarious. Except for their grandmother, Grace, they have no family—that they know of—and when she dies, it seems they really are on their own…
 
…until Grace’s will reveals that not only are they part of a larger family, but it’s, well, HUGE! (Not to mention the most powerful in human history.) But before Dan and Amy can get too cuddly, they also find out that there’s a family feud stretching all the way back to Gideon Cahill and his quarrelsome kids in the 1500s that splits the Cahills into four branches. What’s more, they discover that a secret formula lies at the root of the feud—and it’s up to them to find all of the clues before anyone else can.
 
Book 1, The Maze of Bones  by Rick Riordan, sets the siblings off on a globe-trotting trek to uncover Gideon Cahill’s greatest secret. Filled with action, adventure, geographic thrills, and spine-tingling chills, the series continues in the 9 following volumes, each written by a different author (incl. Gordon Korman, Patrick Carman, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park and several more).
 
Dan and Amy’s story picks up again in series two, Cahills vs. Vespers, with an intermediate novel to bridge the gap, Vespers Rising. I recommend beginning with series one, book one, and working your way up. So far, only two books have been published in the Cahills vs. Vespers series, with book three, The Dead of Night, due out March 6.
 
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I was first introduced to the 39 Clues when I was asked to participate in the creation of some materials for a webcast featuring Ruth Culham—with whom I worked closely on the Scholastic Traits Writing program—and the 39 clues. (You can find the materials I helped generate here.) The webcast and worksheets were designed to get kids examining text and excited about writing by introducing them to the Traits and helping them discover in favorite/familiar books models and mentors for their own work.
 
While I didn’t have to read them all, after book one I found I had quite a fondness for Dan’s quirky character and Amy’s burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Their characters are really lively and well done—and despite the variety of authors, surprisingly consistent. I wound up reading 6 of the 10, and was pleased to revisit their world in the second series this past January when I was asked to participate in another related project.
 
The idea is really stellar and complex (despite some implicit/inadvertent eurocentrism) and the adventures are fun—the pace is nothing if not quick. Historical figures, bits of world cultures and geographic trivia are laced innocuously throughout. I was surprised myself, after the fact, to reflect on how much I had accidentally learned from the series about peope, places, and things I had thought I was quite knowledgable about. Coupled with the interactive website, there’s a lot for unsuspecting reluctant-reading minds to glean.
 
The writing is simple, fairly transparent, and there’s a somewhat “Nancy Drew” quality to Dan and Amy’s sleuthing and often predictable resolutions (which is one reason I didn’t press on to read the final four titles). But the series mixes it up – not always allowing Dan and Amy the spotlight OR the victory outright. Because the Cahill family is so large, there is a vast cast of multicultural characters to meet (though none of them is ever very deeply developed) and the 3rd-person perspective switches up regularly, providing lots of twists and turns.
 
Not deep or heavy by any means, often overly simple for the older reader in me, these are nonetheless fun, light, catching reads that could serve for the kid-at-heart as a good buffer between dark apocalypses and epic fantasies. Something like Spy Kids meets Carmen Sandiego turned print—though generally less cheesy and far more complex. The books had me clue-hunting right along with the Cahills, curious to find out how it would all wrap up in the end.
 
I definitely recommend these book for the 9-12-ers—who I’ve witnessed can get really NUTS for these things!—as well as for the adventurous 13+(+++)-er.
 

 

Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty February 13, 2012

Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Series: Duo (Thumped out April 24, 2012)
Age Group: Solid YA (strong, though not graphic, sexual content)
Genre: Post-apocalyptic
Pages: 336
Source: personal purchase – $.99 January Epic Reads, Kindle Edition
Rating Breakdown: Idea 3.5★; Execution 3★

★★★

Melody has her life all planned out—or, well, technically her parents do, but she’s ok with that. Really, who wouldn’t give their left ovary for a chance at a 6-figure signing bonus, college tuition, and a few moments with one of the most “fertilicious” sperm donors around? All she has to do is cook up a kid for the wealthy, childless Jaydens who’ve hired out her womb. Being a professional surrogate isn’t just the right thing to do, you know, for humanity and all—since the HPSV (human progressive sterility virus) started sterilizing everyone over 18. Without teen surrogates, humanity would go extinct in a matter of years. No, it’s also very hip—at least so say Melody’s parents, all the ads, and the people at Babies R U, who sell prosthetic “FunBumps” to get flat bellies in the mood. And, so says Melody, who was the first to turn pro at her school and make it OK for everyone else to capitalize on their most valuable assets…before they go bad, that is. Even though she has yet to get bumped (the Jayden’s have taken way too long selecting a boy toy), she’s still as excited as she was when this all began—isnt’ she?
 
Not if her twin sister, Harmony—who arrives from her sect’s compound in Goodside unannounced and unwanted—can help it. Harmony’s sole mission in life is to spread the Truth (or so she says), and that includes bringing Melody back from the brink of sinful disaster. Harmony certainly doesn’t intend to bump with anyone. No, sir. Why would anyone want to do a thing like that??
________________________________________________________________________________________
 
[So, be forewarned: this book is all about sexuality, as you may well have guessed. Though there aren’t any overly graphic scenes, sex is nonetheless very present throughout. Teenage pregnancy is a topic of ambiguous debate, and neither protection nor abstinence is considered seriously, nor is any perspective really committed to at the end. Perhaps some of those topics will be fleshed out (no pun intended..,) in Book 2, but were not in Book 1.]
 
For the first few chapters, I found this book rather annoying. A combination of heavy, heavy use of unexplained, world-specific slang from Melody, a wad of over-the-top fundamentalism from Harmony, and slow progress resulting from the alternating perspectives caused me to put it down several times. However, about halfway through, I began to get used to the slang. Harmony either softened up or I accepted her as a complex character (and not just an allegorical subject molded specifically to be mocked). The plot finally picked up, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying the last 150-or-so pages.
 
As for the world, it’s rather thin and flat. Fleshed out predominantly through the slang, it doesn’t ever really differentiate itself from “today.” High schools are high schools; hospitals are hospitals. The only discernable nuances are the virus and an internalized blink-driven fusion of the Internet/Facebook called the “MiNet” (clever phonetics for “ME” net?) that we’ve seen 1000 times already (The Uglies…). However, the virus and its repercussions are intriguing enough to consider (for a more structured exploration of the same, see P. D. James’ novel and the movie loosely based on it, Children on Men). The idea of gametes and uterus being commodities, and young girls being pressured to have not only sex, but babies, by peers and parents is an interesting and complex conflict. With the number of women experiencing fertility problems today and signs of a sperm count decrease being linked to water-borne hormones from oral contraceptives, it’s not even that far-fetched an apocalypse.
 
However, I felt the book’s handling of the topic was a bit too ambiguous. The focus was put more on the freedom to keep one’s own child, with adoption treated as somewhat undesirable. (I understood that it was forced adoption that was being looked down upon, but awkward, superficial handling of the subject didn’t really leave room for other considerations.) Because of the social situation, romance isn’t a driving force of the novel, which was quite refreshing. But, again, like the idea of teen pregnancy, the concept of sex outside of affection wasn’t well handled—though you do get a basic hint that the narrator feels one should be a prerequisite for the other. In the end, the story becomes more of an answer to the question, What would happen if extremist views that sex should only be procreative took over? than an exploration of the potential fallout from a debilitating virus or a even a promotion of sex’s other uses.
 
In addition, the reasons why in vitro fertilization isn’t more widely used is not satisfactorily explained at all. This was one of my biggest gripes. As an obvious alternative that’s medically available today, not to give any real reason it isn’t being used in such a future as this is just sloppy world-building. Additionally, though young people are having rampant sex (orgies included) STDs are never even mentioned. A cure has been found for AIDS, the reader is informed at one point, but no other mention of the hazards of unprotected sex are discussed, which I found rather irresponsible, given the age of the characters and the book’s target audience.
 
Finally, the ending was soooo incredibly forced. It was an unexpected cliff-hanger that was obviously manufactured to extend the brand. I usually hate those types of endings. I didn’t so much this time, but that may be due to the fact that I was reading an e-book, and thus unable to get outraged that the remaining pages were far less than needed to wrap up the plot (until it was already upon me!). Or, it simply might have been because I was so ambivalent about the characters and their story in general.
 
That said, I can’t deny that I did enjoy it, though I can’t really pinpoint why. While I am not sure I can say exactly what was good about it (nor sure it’s worth spending the time to craft such thoughts…), I can say what wasn’t bad: It wasn’t full of awkward phrases or overly simplified lines—that is, it wasn’t badly written on a line-by-line basis. The characters weren’t utterly odious, annoying, or flat. The plot didn’t completely stagnate. The idea wasn’t totally cliché. It wasn’t a cotton-candy read since, thankfully, it did have some thought-provoking substance. Oh, and it wasn’t romance-driven. (Perhaps its best quality.)
 
I will surprise myself by giving it a thumbs up on the jargon, which so turned me off at the beginning. Though hard to get used to, it was quite clever. If as much time had been spent developing the themes and plot as was spent on the slang, it would have been much better book.
 
All in all, I would be flat out wrong if I said it didn’t have something. I’ve spent a lot of time lately contemplating the idea that we are often judging books by too-narrow standards. Where literary criticism doesn’t always turn up any merit (case and point: Harry Potter!), popular opinion belies qualities that the ivory tower is overlooking. It reminds me of the idea of differentiated learning styles—you know, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Whatever the literary equivalents of those are, this book has some of them. More on that topic to come.

 

Book Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer January 9, 2012

 
Publisher: Macmillan
Series: Lunar Chronicles (Book 1)
Age Group: YA (totally clean)
Release Date: January 3, 2012
Pages: 400
Source: NetGalley and Giveaway from Amanda at Diary of a Book Addict
Genre: Scifi + Post-Apocalyptic
Rating Breakdown: Idea 5+★; Execution 3+★
 

★★★★

Cinder is a cyborg—which in her society means barely human. Somewhere in a past she can’t remember, there was an accident that left her parentless and a surgery that gave her a foot and a hand she doesn’t want, but can’t live without. Her one glimmer of hope came in the form of a scientist from the Eastern commonwealth—a conglomerate of countries united by the emperor sometime after the devastating WW4—but was dashed before she even know about him, when he died of the Letumosis epidemic.
 
Now, stuck with a stepmother who hates her, working as a mechanic to pay bills that aren’t her own, in a country swept by plague and threatened by war from the psychotic Lunar queen, Cinder only dreams of escape.
 
And, then the Prince walks in.
 
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First off, you must read this book. It’s great. You’ll enjoy it, I guarantee. It’s overall tightly written, fast paced, and unique. I was drawn to the cover at first sight and couldn’t put it down!
 
But, as a connoisseur (hah!) I am truly on the fence about it. As a reviewer, I feel compelled to tell the whole truth and nothing but. So, while on the one hand it was a thrilling read, it has its flaws.
 
I love the concept—very original. Instead of a technologically backwards future of the sort we’re used to seeing in today’s post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels, this one is very techno-savvy. Reminded me of Westerfeld’s The Uglies in its tenor. Hover cars are all the rage, and human beings survive historically fatal or utterly disfiguring injuries because of extreme advances in surgical prosthetics.
 
Fairly logically-advanced versions of the internet, computers, and televisions are the main form of communication and entertainment, which helps tie nicely into the present-day world.
 
The commonwealth, and its emperor are situated in Asia, in a city called New Beijing, making this the second book to allude to fears of China’s rise to world power. However, unlike some, this book doesn’t see that as a bad thing. The Emperor and his family are just, fair rulers, and peacefully cohabitate with other ruling bodies—except those on the moon (yup!).
 
Instead of climate change, and/or oil shortage being the cause of the apocalypse (both of which have been almost overdone these days…), it’s international conflict that spawned both destruction and peace between Earthen countries. Unchecked greed and power hunger is the reason for the latest threat from the mutated inhabitants of the moon—and their mind-controlling queen.
 
Up until that point, everything was great. But, the mind control was where the book started to get under my skin. I found it to be too convenient, cheesy, inconsistently implemented, and ineffective.
 
Similarly, though I appreciated the attempt to align this with the original Cinderella story, a few of the plot elements at the end were too forced. This is a problem I have with a lot of fairytale re-imaginings: they don’t seem to realize you can pick and choose which elements to include—and even then, you can bend them a little to fit your setting. This book tried too hard to get them all in…and didn’t bend or wield them skillfully enough to fit. For one, the “carriage” (an old rusted out automobile) was a potentially really intriguing twist that just didn’t deliver and faded out as abruptly as it appeared. More importantly, however, the ball was just totally out of place, in my mind. Not only was it a virtual impossibility (all the citizens of one major city invited at once?), but then, why such an outdated ritual in full 17th century style was the one tradition that held over from the old to such a futuristic world wasn’t explained. It wasn’t the right scene for the confrontation, and as a result, the final scenes were just not cathartic enough.
 
As for characters, the evil queen wasn’t very believable—her dialogue made me chuckle at some points. And, last but not least, Cinder just wasn’t a decisive or confident enough character for my taste. Why she waited so long to work on the Prince’s robot—meanwhile the dropped hints and reminders of its import were abundant—I just couldn’t figure out. And her two obsessions—her own imperfection and escape—were overdone to the point of threatening the story not only plot-wise, but overall by making her slightly annoying.
 
That said, however, I really enjoyed the concept and the world, and will definitely be looking out for book 2—which I hope will benefit from its freedom from the original story and license to do fantastic things with a fantastic concept.

 

Official #HungerGames Movie Trailer…WOW! November 14, 2011

I. have. chills.

 

Book Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

Filed under: Action-Adventure,Books,Realistic FIction — Booknotized @ 12:30 pm
Tags: ,

Publisher: Dial
Release Date: August 23, 2005
Age Group: YA (sexual innuendo/references/discussion)
Sequel: The Last Little Blue Envelope
Pages: 336
Rating: Idea 3.5★; Execution 3.5★
Genre: realistic fiction; travel/adventure

★★★1/2

Ginny has never been much of one for adventure, but all of that changes when the receives a letter from her dead aunt Peg, and finds herself whisked off halfway across the world. Leave it to aunt Peg to cook up some crazy scheme—that was her m.o. in life—why should it be any different just because she’s…gone?

So, armed with only a backpack, some cash, and a handful of consecutively numbered envelopes from her aunt, Ginny sets out on a wild, seemingly haphazard tour of Europe, that leads her as much inward as it does out.

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For the most part, this book is fun and engaging. Ginny, though unsure of herself isn’t your typical whiney, flagellating ball of angst. She’s got spunk down in there that the reader can see—even if it takes her a while to discover it herself.

The trip abroad is fun, if unrealistic, especially the large amount of time spent in England, at which point in the book I found myself reliving my study-abroad time at Oxford. In fact, at one point, I got off the train after reading it, got some take-out for dinner, and sat down at home to eat it, only to realize I had purchased curry and cider for myself…same thing that the characters were eating during my train ride.

However, once Jenny left England, the story went a little flat for me. The environments felt 2-dimensional, the characters somewhat stereotypical, and Ginny’s self-progress a little stunted. I wish there had been more description of people, sights, sounds, and things in the various countries. Ginny tended to enter places in a rush, hole up somewhere small, and stick there, venturing out only in sentences instead of excursions. The exception to that would be Paris, where the cafe described was unique, charming, and well-evoked, if impractical.

I also wasn’t totally satisfied with Ginny’s “growth” by the end. She did pull a bit of a whine-fest toward the final chapter, and I felt as frustrated as she was supposed to be. Also, the way in which she loses the last enveloped (and is thus tugged into a 2nd book) was slightly…convenient, but did manage to leave me wanting to know how it would conclude.

All in all, it was a quick, fun read that made me want to bolt off on a trek across the world.

. . . maybe someday I will.

 

Series Review: Wolves of Mercy Falls (Shiver, Linger, Forever) by Maggie Steifvater November 10, 2011

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: August 1, 2009; July 13, 2010; July 12, 2011
Series: Wolves of Mercy Falls
Age Group: solid YA (implied/described sexual content; graphic violence)
Pages: 400; 368; 400
Rating: Idea 4★; Execution 4★; Style 4.5★
Genre: romantic fantasy

★★★★

Shiver / Linger

Grace is relatively happy living in her rural home with parents who are rarely ever there…it’s lonely, but she creates her own structure: good grades, no late nights…

Only when she begins to feel drawn away from the warmth and light into the quick chill of the Boundary Wood that fringes her house—toward the pack of wolves that roams there—does she realize that something is missing, and perhaps always has been.

Then the boy appears—and he is one of them, she is sure. His yellow eyes belong to the wolf, the stormy gray wolf who saved her all those years ago.

And then, he is Sam. And she cannot imagine life without him. So she doesn’t…

…but the cold, and his earthy, shaggy, winter body remembers. It will claim him.

It might be calling her, too.
 
Forever

Sam is stable…as much as he can be without Grace.
Where she is…what she is, he can’t be sure. He only knows he needs to find her, fast.
Now that a second death has been blamed on his pack, they only have so much time before the hunters begin closing in. It may already be too late.
 
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This series is sort of in a class by itself. It is a dark, brooding romantic fantasy of a similar brand as that of Twilight, but the style (and LACK of love triangle) is superior enough to make that comparison invalid. And, I think the quality of the writing has only improved with age. Out now, the third book has all of the same qualities as Shiver and Linger, only more crystallized and focused.
 
For one, the world is built with integrity. Fitting to the plot, it is tight and limited, but the text makes it visceral. Metaphor is a key descriptive player and it is used in fresh and surprising ways. Sam’s favorite poet Maria Rainer Rilke is quoted often, and I daresay the text benefits immensely from that—in style as much as in content.
 
The characters are multi-dimensional, but focused and consistent. They grown and learn—about themselves and others—over the course of the trilogy. (You would think that would be a given, but I’ve learned the hard way that this is an unusual characteristic in YA lit these days! So, when I see it, I like to point it out.) The side characters are intriguing (bad-boy Cole is there for those of us who like a scruffy egomaniac) and take on a life of their own as they become more central to the storyline in Forever. This is in part due to the multiple-point-of-view format of the book, which I found refreshing (each chapter is written in a different character’s voice). Overall, they (Sam, Grace, Cole, Isabel, etc) aren’t extremely deep, and sometimes their realizations are slightly obvious, but it’s not to the point of annoying. The crux of the book really is the plight of the werewolf, and, of course, the two soul mates caught in the crossfire between an errant biology and an ignorant humanity.
 
Yes, it’s a tender, emo love story. However, even though soft, skinny, sensitive Sam is not really my type, he is such a well-drawn character, you can’t help but like him. The poetry—Rilke’s, not necessarily Sam’s—often would step in to redeem him for me, giving him a deeper facet than most other series’ boy toys have. He so clearly needs Grace that you can’t help but root for them. Grace herself is all but perfect, but not in an unlikable way. She’s beautiful, but strong (kind of like Bella Swan should have been).
 
Really, for all of the wolf in them, they are both very human.
 
The plot is fairly strong: catching and medium-paced. I got slightly impatient at times, so it wouldn’t have worked for me to read all 3 books in a row. I read them as they came out, and I was actually happy with that. The world is compelling enough to make revisiting a pleasure. Some reviewers did not like the ending of the trilogy, but I did. True, it’s ambivalent, but not in a cheap, incongruent, copout, “no questions answered” way like the Incarceron series. There’s the hint of what could happen, but not the confirmation. Frankly, it totally fits with the style, and I was ok with that.
 
In fact, the most striking characteristic of the books for me lies in the style—in the “feeling” the writing gives: of cold.
 
True, the story is purposefully set on the borders of a wilderness in Mercy Falls, Minnesota, where winters are long and harsh: cold is what makes a werewolf shift into a wolf. But it’s one thing to simply state that fact—another to weave it into the fabric of the text. I don’t quite know how to explain what I mean, but for all the warmth of Sam and Grace’s relationship, I always came away from the text with a chill. It was as if there was somehow something delicate lying between me and them, a subtle frosty whisper that fills and parts the air.
 
That, I found totally masterful.

 

Book Review: Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien November 7, 2011

Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Release Date: March 30, 2010
Series: Birthmarked Trilogy
Age Group: solid YA (mild graphic violence/birth scenes)
Pages: 368
Rating: Idea 4.5★; Execution 4.5★
Genre: dystopia

★★★★1/2

Being a midwife is never an easy job—things happen, babies are stillborn, women bleed to death—but at least most of the time it goes well. Mother is reunited with the soft bundle she has loved and nurtured for 9 long months…and will for the rest of her life.

Unless, of course, you live outside the wall. There, conditions are harsh, and babies—like water—are rationed, a practice 16-year-old, brand-new midwife Gaia goes along with…because she must. That is, until her mother and father are suddenly taken prisoner, and Gaia finds she can no longer abide by the unjust laws of the Enclave. She must get them out, even if it costs her life.

Where they will go afterward, no one knows. The settlement has been carved from the arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland of (now) Unlake Superior—and it stretches almost beyond the reach of legend.

And then, of course, there’s the question of Leon and his dangerous interest in her. Yes, what on earth is to be done about Leon (and her smoldering interesting in him)…?
 
____________________________________________________________________________________________________
 

For starters, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Prized, the sequel—out tomorrow, Nov. 8.

I was hooked on page one, which drops the reader wholly and without hesitation or apology into an intense, visual, and rather daring (if you asked me) birth scene. My first thought was, Whoah!… and then Well, any book that starts with a jarring, evocative line like “the mother clenched her body into one final, straining push, and the baby slithered out into Gaia’s ready hands,” is bound to be taking chances elsewhere. And I like books that take chances.

I wasn’t disappointed.

(I ♥ the PBK cover.)

The setting for this book is unique—something like the 1st-century Middle East. At least, that’s how I envisioned the small, twisting streets, bright flowing garments, water cisterns, and stretching desert. And, it is incredibly well evoked. The artistry of the book really is in the details that are woven throughout. Well-placed flashbacks and everyday events illuminate and develop protagonist Gaia into not only an empathetic character, but an almost living, breathing entity one feels drawn…even compelled to follow under the wall and down the perilous streets of the Enclave—though it very well may cost you your life!! (Hyperbole, I know, but I was into it!)

The love interest, Leon, is singular (*handful of confetti*) and irresistibly compelling (*bag of confetti*), on account of which the ending—a cliffhanger, and normally a turn-off for me in series books—is really shocking, painful, thrilling, and, well, just excellent. (*confetti storm*)

Of course, this means that one (read: I) must acquire a copy of book 2 ASAP, or one (read: I) really might burst…but enough about that.

There was only one element I thought could have used “more,” and that was Gaia’s parents. Because of the circumstances of the plot, they were kind of glossed over/incidental, and dealt with rather abruptly at the end. Considering the obvious care taken throughout the rest of the book, I can’t help but wonder if that was a result of the story’s unexpected evolution from 1 volume to 3 (an anecdote O’Brien revealed at the Brooklyn book festival this September). As much as I usually begrudge the after-effects of a publisher-pushed sequel, however, I am equally (oh, who am I kidding? more) glad to be able to revisit Gaia and her world.

And, I have a sneaking suspicion it will turn out alright: the mastery really is in the writing—the style, the vocabulary, the excellent metaphors. Those elements, and a tight plot with elemental (detailed) integrity, set Birthmarked apart from others in the genre.
 
For another perspective on this title, check out my good friend Shanella’s review.

 

 
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