Review: The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell

KlaberFlap Copy: At a time when women did not commonly travel unescorted, carry a rifle, sit down in bars, or have romantic liaisons with other women, Lucy Lobdell boldly set forth to earn men’s wages. Lucy Lobdell did all of these things in a personal quest to work and be paid, to wear what she wanted, and love whomever she cared to. But to gain those freedoms she had to endure public scorn and wrestle with a sexual identity whose vocabulary had yet to be invented. In this riveting historical novel, William Klaber captures the life of a brave woman who saw well beyond her era.

This is the fictionalized account of Lucy’s foray into the world of men and her inward journey to a new sexual identity. It is her promised memoir as hear and recorded a century later by William Klaber, an upstream neighbor. Meticulously researched and told with compassion and respect, this is historical fiction at its best.

Review: William Kalber’s novel does justice to one of the most fascinating Americans I’d never heard of. Perhaps one of the first women to be referred to as “Lesbian,” Lucy Ann put on her pants one leg at a time and blazed a trail west from rural upstate New York, where decades later women would start to rally for the vote. Thanks to the author’s well-written dialogue and storytelling, we can imagine more easily what went through the heart and mind of this fascinating, real-life character.

I take it for granted that I can wear pants to work. Indeed, I take it for granted that I can work outside the home at all – except perhaps sometimes to grumble about it on a Monday morning. Learning about Lucy’s life, her difficult decision to fake an identity and leave a child behind, helped me appreciate the things my foremothers secured for me to enjoy. (My appreciation is usually most pronounced on Election Days, but that’s the big stuff.)

In addition to sensitive and respectful creativity to fill in some of the blanks about Lucy’s life, William Klaber also appears to have researched Joseph Lobdell’s life extensively and provides snippets of newspaper accounts that reference Joseph Lobdell the man as well as accounts of “Mrs. Slater” in all her post-discovery notoriety. I found it the most interesting to consider that Lucy Ann’s disguise might not always have been as good as she thought and wondered if many more people knew than she realized, but let it pass without comment or judgment despite the more “official” stance she encountered from the courts and the police. It is unthinkable today to incarcerate a woman for wearing pants, but I also found it telling that Lucy Ann’s wife, who didn’t adopt a masculine appearance, never seemed to have been charged with a crime or locked in an insane asylum for insisting that Lucy Ann was her “husband.” I suppose this may speak volumes for what even nineteenth century revivalists were willing to tolerate for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Despite her years of loneliness and the frequent harm she met when her secret was discovered, Lucy Ann also met a wealth of tolerant, generous and supportive people – the number goes far towards encouraging my faith humanity. Together with the massive strides forward in the century since her death in both gender equality and LGBT rights, I’m heartened by William Klaber’s preservation of this previously unsung hero(ine?).

Review: The Valley

RenehanFlap Copy: There were many valleys in the mountains of Afghanistan, and most were hard places where people died hard deaths. But there was only one Valley. Black didn’t even know its proper name. But he knew about the Valley. It was the farthest, and the hardest, and the worst. It lay deeper and higher in the mountains than any other place Americans had ventured. You had to travel through a network of interlinked valleys, past all the other remote American outposts, just to get to its mouth. Stories circulated periodically, tales of land claimed and fought for, or lost and overrun, new attempts made or turned back, outposts abandoned or reclaimed. They were impossible to verify. Everything about the Valley was myth and rumor.

The strung-out platoon Black finds after traveling deep into the heart of the Valley, and the illumination of dark secrets accumulated during month after month fighting and dying in defense of an indefensible piece of land, provide a portrait of mend at war reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, The Yellow Birds and Matterhorn.

Review: It’s not like me to get pulled into a war story. I don’t like books that oversimplify bravery and patriotism or glorify violence or demonize an enemy.

The Valley doesn’t do any of that. The protagonist is weary of the violence, the monotony and the bureaucracy of a war machine. He reluctantly takes an assignment, indifferent to its outcome, to investigate an improper use of force in the most remote front line, somewhere on the edge of Pakistan and Afghanistan – as apparent a waste of investigative resources as ever there was. But Black discovers that there is more gray than black or white, as so frequently there is in modern warfare. We see the soldiers in a human light, subject to rage, despair and self-interest as often as courage, bravery and selflessness.

John Renehan, a former field officer who served in Iraq, also shows us the enemy – the accidental enemy bred on the frontlines. We can’t help but wonder if, on our doorstep, we would respond any differently. His disturbing story is set in a wonderland that may never see peace in our lifetimes, but his scenery exudes hope that tranquility will once more settle in the Valley that, but for the missile scars and gun smoke, could be mistaken for Shangri-la.

Source: ARC from Dutton

Release Date: March 10, 2015

Review: Horrorstör

Flap Copy: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, managers arrive to find broken Kjёrring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Clearly, someone or something is up to no good. To unravel the mystery, three young employees volunteer to work a ten-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the wee hours of the night, they’ll patrol the empty Showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

A traditional haunted house story iHendrixn a thoroughly contemporary setting, Horrorstör comes packaged in the form of a retail catalog, complete with illustrations of ready-to-assemble flat-pack furniture and other more sinister home appliances.

Review: Although I’m more inclined to describe it as “cute” than “scary,” Horrorstör is really a quite clever story of a haunted . . . well, let’s just say it – it’s a haunted Ikea. I can say it would have been a little funnier if the haunting were attributable to the building’s placement on, say, an old cattle run into the slaughterhouse or perhaps a cliff wherefrom a thousand lemmings died, rather than the more traditional cause (at least, I was thinking of cattle and lemmings last time I was in an Ikea). But, it’s a fun little story and the layout is really what takes it, complete with the sweet little descriptions of fine home furnishings like Bodavest, a restraint chair available in light oak or medium birch, an ideal complement to anyone’s living room from hell.

Source: ARC from Quirk

Review: The Way Inn

Flap Copy: Neil Double is a “conference surrogate,” hired by his clients to attend industry conferences so that they don’t have to. It’s a life of budget travel, cheap suits, and out-of-town exhibition centers – a kind of paradise for Neil, who has reconstructed his incognito professional life into a toxic and selfish personal philosophy. But his lateWilesst job, at a conference of conference organizers, will radically transform him and everything he believes, as it unexpectedly draws him into a bizarre and speculative mystery.

In a brand-new Way Inn – a global chain of identikit mid-budget motels – in an airport hinterland, he meets a woman he has seen before in strange and unsettling circumstances. She hints at an astonishing truth about this mundane world filled with fake smiles and piped Muzak. But before Neil can learn more, she vanishes. Intrigued, he tries to find her – a search that will lead him down the rabbit hole, into an eerily familiar place where he will discover a dark and disturbing secret about the Way Inn. Caught on a metaphysical Mobius strip, Neil discovers that there may be no way out.

Review: The Way Inn is weird – in the excellent kind of weird you get when you unsuspectingly pick up a book and find that it’s magical realism (which always makes my day!). At The Way Inn, if you figure out how, you can start walking down a corridor in a motel near an anonymous English airport and wind your way to a mid-century Route 66 motel in an anonymous American state. Neil is not just searching for the truth – he’s searching to make sense out of a psychedelic journey that comments on cultural assimilation, boredom and personal meaning. If you’ve ever regretted urban sprawl and wondered how to immerse yourself in a new area when every chain restaurant, store and roadside rest stop looks the same, this is a book you should read.

Source: ARC from St. Martin’s Press

Review: The Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Flap Copy: Below me the island glistens verdant green. I imagine what it holds. Such things of horror and exhilaration are seldom gathered together. I turn my head from the window as fear and liberation beat in equal measures through my bloodstream. Straddling opposite sides of the long and brutal civil war in Sri Lanka, two girls, one Sinhala, the other Tamil, navigate their histories, sibling rivalries and adolescent heartbreaks, the burdens of exile and belonging, and the harsh demands of survival. Written in stirring prose that evokes the beauty of the island country and the bloodshed that destroyed it, Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel is a haunting tale of lives distorted by terrible violence.

MunaweeraReview: This is an incredible debut, a novel written like a lyrical memoir of heartache and growing pains. Set in the Sri Lankan civil war, it is also immensely educational for a Western ignoramus like myself, who has very little conception of Sri Lanka, its history or racial tensions or even its civil war that cost 80,000 lives. The educational value is driven home through an unflinching application of the facts of war to the most relatable human emotion – love. This is not a war story of lovers separated; the love here is between sisters Yasodhara and Luxshmi. I tried to comfort myself with an eventual reminder that this is a fiction novel, no one really lived through this; but that is cold comfort indeed when you think that a chapter of this story can be told 80,000 times over.

It’s beautiful, heartrending and horrible. I will be reading this book again.

Source: ARC from St. Martin’s Press

Review: First Impressions

LovettFlap Copy: Charlie Lovett first delighted readers with his New York Times bestselling debut, The Bookman’s Tale. Now Lovett weaves another brilliantly imagined mystery, this time featuring one of English literature’s most beloved popular authors: Jane Austen.

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories, by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice – and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth – while choosing between two suitors – and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.

Review: I must admit the blaspheme of book lovers – I’m not a huge Jane Austen fan. I understand what her status is in literature, but I also suspect, very quietly to myself, that she did women few favors by essentially mothering chick lit and paving the way for subsequent writers to be “women authors” instead of just “authors.” I know, I know, she was a product of her day and her own experiences were unfairly limited to the hearth and home, and she clearly knew that women are capable of more than waiting around to become a Mrs. to be self-actualized and happy. Still – perhaps the world wasn’t ready for her silent irony?

Anyway, First Impressions is a clever homage to Austen. First, the title itself is the original title Austen gave to Pride and Prejudice, and the title also describes Sophie’s dilemma – prejudicing herself against others based on her first impressions. Sophie has the modern versions of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham chasing her from the streets of Oxford to Jane Austen’s English country settings, and stuck on her initial impressions of each, she can’t tell which one means harm and which one means help. In addition to adapting Jane Austen’s tale into a modern setting, the book also delivers a good literary mystery, which is always a good time.

Although, like I said, I’m not a huge Austen fan, I’ve read her books and studied their literary context in some depth. I’ve been to Bath and seen the appropriate Austen shrines, and I’ll give Mr. Charlie Lovett this – he brings Austen to life like a person, not like an author who knew what her books would do to the literary world. He strips down the aura and the expectations and presents a character who is faulty, carries regrets, doubts and perhaps even the more self-interested and malicious of human motivations. I could identify with the Jane Austen more on these pages than I could with the Jane Austen haunting the museum of her sitting room in Bath. The story quietly says, “She might not have been perfect, despite her genius and legacy – but imagine what that means for you and I, imperfect as we are, too.”

Source: ARC from Viking

Review: How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

NetzerFlap Copy: Like a jewel shimmering in a Midwest skyline, the Toledo Institute of Astronomy is the nation’s premier center of astronomical discovery and a beacon of scientific learning for astronomers far and wide. Here, dreamy cosmologist George Dermont mines the stars to prove the existence of God. Here, Irene Sparks, an unsentimental scientist, creates black holes in captivity.

George and Irene are on a collision course with love, destiny and fate. They have everything in common: both are ambitious, both passionate and science, both lonely and yearning for connection. The air seems to hum when they’re together. But George and Irene’s attraction was not written in the stars. In fact, their mothers, friends since childhood, raised them separately to become each other’s soul mates.

When that long-secret plan triggers unintended consequences, the two astronomers must discover the truth about their destinies, and unravel the mystery of what Toledo holds for them – together, or perhaps, apart.

Review: I loved the way this book wove together a little woo – soul mates, fate, kismet – and cold hard science – logic, consequences, black holes. This book nails the separation between the Spocks and the Kirks of the world, all the while talking about two scientists. It’s not a matter of personality conflict, so much, as conflict within Irene between her convictions about how the world works and what is happening right in front of her.

The book also nails the separation that divides mothers and daughters – so frequently an even bigger divide than between science and woo. Irene must come to terms with everything her mother has done and must decide which of her principles she must sacrifice to find satisfaction in her own life.

Source: ARC from St. Martin’s Press

Review: Us

NichollsFlap Copy: Douglas Petersen may be mild mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date . . . and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen-year-old son Albie. Then Connie tells Douglas she thinks she wants a divorce.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and may even help him to bond with Albie.

Review: I have loved myself some scientific men in my time, and Douglas Petersen is one of them. He’s tender, funny, self-conscious and awkward – and, at the time we meet him, devastated because his wife of nearly thirty years has asked for a divorce, for no special reason in particular. Now, she’s not a monster; you’ll get to know her and understand her as well, but I don’t think that will change which friend you’d want to keep in this divorce.

The story details Douglas’s transformations, beginning with his early years as a young scientist who inexplicably catches the heart of a vivacious, talented and beautiful bohemian artist, who differs from him in almost every way. But marriage isn’t the end of the story, and Douglas continues to transform through parenthood, bitter disappointment and the gradual erosion of passion into habit and formality. Finally, we watch Douglas grow for the third time as he flexes his wings, and, for the first time, starts to assert himself by pursuing what he wants instead of gaping gratefully at the things that fall into his lap.

David Nicholls writes tenderly about divorces where there are no good guys and no bad guys, just two people who inadvertently broke each other down, the difference between smashing a stone with a hammer and slowly eroding it with years of slow water drips. I am fully able to identify – interestingly, with both Connie and Douglas – so this book was actually a little cathartic while also remaining an entertaining and endearing read.

Source: ARC from Harper’s Press

Review: Euphoria

Flap Copy: English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out ofKing anyone’s control.

Review: Well, when a historical novel is inspired by Margaret Mead, I’m going to be interested. Lily King dissects the psyches of the three Western anthropologists as thoroughly as they seek to document the customs of New Guinea natives that they find so strange. Of course, when you throw in a love triangle, the natives gape back just as much at the elaborate and illogical mating behavior displayed by the anthropologists. But it’s so much more than a love story – there is feminism, post-colonialism, history and heartache.

Written in the universal languages of love and loss; I really enjoyed this book more than I can express. It would be ideal for lovers of well-researched historical fiction, anthropology and, of course, tragedy.

Source: ARC from Atlantic Monthly Press

Review: A Man Called Ove

BackmanFlap Copy: Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon – the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundation.

Review: We all know an Ove. We’ve seen him before, frowning at strangers, grimacing at children or shaking his fist at a dog in his flower bed.

But we’ve never seen him tenderly carry his frail wife to her bed. We’ve never seen his tears evaporate in the heat of a fire he can’t fight. And we certainly have never seen him loop a noose around his own neck and calmly kick the stool away.

It’s easy to see why this Swedish best-seller is going international and into multiple languages – because our shared experiences in the 1940s produced a generation of stoic, stalwart, silent men who we know and love know as our grandfathers, which we discuss at length now in therapy while we work through our own comparatively easy lives. Our grandfathers, of course, did not have the self-indulgent luxury of therapy – instead, they fixed the heater, tuned the car, ripped out the kitchen or fought with bureaucratic government drones. Having redirected his heart into these things for so long, Ove has oiled up his life to a perfectly functioning machine that is now ready to roll along without him.

Instead, he learns about all the different kinds of love that can save a person – the love of a friend, the love of a child or even the love of a cat who rescues you from the cold.

Source: ARC from Atria

Review: Bittersweet

Flap Copy: On scholarship at a prestigious East Coast college, ordinary Mabel Dagmar is surprised to befriend her roommate, the beautiful blue-blooded Genevra Winslow. Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at Bittersweet, a cottage on the Vermont estate where her family has been holding court for more than a century; it’s the kind of place where children twirl sparklers across the lawn during cocktail hour. Mabel falls in love with the midnight skinny-dips, the wet-dog smell lingering in the air, the moneyed laughter carrying across the still lake, and before she knows it, she has everything she’s ever wanted: wealth, friendship, a boyfriend, and, most of all, the sense, for the first time in her life, that she belongs.

But as Mabel becomes Beverly-Whittemorean insider, she makes a terrible discovery that leads to shocking violence and the revelation of the true source of the Winslows’ fortune. Mabel must choose: either expose the ugliness surrounding her and face expulsion from paradise, or keep the family’s dark secrets and redefine what is good and what is evil, in the interest of what can be hers.

Review: Mabel, a dowdy, studious girl, is pulled into the chaotically charmed life of her aloof and beautiful roommate, Genevra. Inexplicable to Mabel, Ev takes a liking to her – in turns out that Ev has the same desperate need for true acceptance that Mabel does.

Mabel’s smarts, integrity and her ability to keep her wits about her when the inevitable treachery arises shows that she has more in common with Ev than the wealthy Winslows might have anticipated. She finds out the history of what the Winslows did to get and keep their wealth, and her own decisions show that she’s more than a good fit to take a place in their cabal – even if it means stepping on the back of the one who brought her in.

(This book is almost a revenge fantasy for us Mabels. Loved it – good for your literary book clubs!)

Source: ARC from Crown Publishing

Review: We Were Liars

LockhartFlap Copy: A beautiful and distinguished family. A private island. A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy. A group of four friends – the Liars – whose friendship turns destructive. A revolution. An accident. A secret. Lies upon lies. True love. The truth. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Review: Cadence Sinclair Eastman is the privileged daughter of a New England family wealthy enough to own a private island and all the personal residences on it. Her grandfather, the patriarch, brings his children and their children to the island every summer, giving Cadence a regular group of cousins and friends to gossip and swim with.

But one of these regulars, an aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew, Gat Patil, appears on the island as a young man one summer. Cadence tests the limits of her family’s tolerance as her feelings for Gat morph from childhood friendship to something more.

I won’t tell you their secrets, but I can’t lie – this is an excellent book, right down to the horrifying twist!

Source: ARC from Delacore Press.

Review: Zac and Mia

BettsFlap Copy: The last person Zac expects to meet in the hospital room next door is a girl like Mia – beautiful, angry and feisty, with questionable taste in music. In the real world, he could never be friends with a girl like her. But when a knock on the wall leads to a note, a friendship surprises them both. Does Mia need Zac? Does Zac need Mia? Maybe they both need each other, always.

Told in alternating perspectives over nine months, Zac and Mia follows the relationship of two ordinary teenagers enduring extraordinary circumstances, in this tough and tender young adult novel that’s a lot about love . . . and a little about cancer.

Review: As an old curmudgeon, I thoroughly enjoyed Zac and Mia. It’s a sweet but spiky story about young love and loss – happy endings are relative when you’re talking about teenagers with cancer. Particularly for a young adult novel, the character developments shown through the switching narrative might help give the young reader perspective on their peers acting out or irrationally – there is frequently an excellent reason for mood swings, subterfuge, abrupt breaks in friendship. As Mia in particular matured, I moved from annoyance and skepticism to compassion and, like Zac, to compassion and admiration for her bravery and courage.

Source: ARC from HMH Books

The Betrayers

BezmozgisFlap Copy: These incandescent pages gives us one fraught, momentous day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident who now finds himself a disgraced Israeli politician. When he refuses to back down from a contrary but principled stand regarding the West Bank settlements, his political opponents expose his affair with a mistress decades his junior, and the besieged couple escapes to Yalta, the faded Crimean resort of Kotler’s youth. There, shockingly, Kotler encounters the former friend whose denunciation condemned him to the Gulag almost forty years earlier.

In a whirling twenty-four hours, Kotler must face the ultimate reckoning, both with those who have betrayed him and those whom he has betrayed, including a teenage daughter, a son facing his own moral dilemma in the Israeli army, and the wife who once campaigned to secure his freedom and stood by his side through so much.

Review: You know what I love about history? Taking a close look shows just how much of our collective experience is shaped by the singular personal decisions of people in power. One decision – to steal a kiss, shred a document, shake a hand – by a powerful man can bring down an empire, push the red button down or de-escalate a worldwide disaster. Baruch Kotler made a series of decisions – decisions that were both foolish and principled – and watches in horror as the consequences unfold. The consequences of course comprise the political scale, when he is denounced and the world watches with increasing tensions as Israeli troops are ordered to escort Israeli settlers from the West Bank, as well as the personal, which perhaps distract him more. Of course his wife is devastated and his daughter and son are furious and ashamed. The book explores the interplay between political loyalty and familial devotion, which is fascinating when you consider the real motivations that may lurk behind the watershed moments in history.

Baruch meets his former friend, who betrayed him decades before and sent him to the Gulag and finds less of a foe than a mirror in which he can ponder his own betrayal and practice the speeches he must make to start amends.

Source: ARC from Little, Brown and Company

Review: The Nostalgist

HansburyFlap Copy:Stoop-shouldered and balding beneath a porkpie hat, Jonah Soloway is an old man before his time. Effectively orphaned when an SUV took his mother’s life, he has retreated into a solitary world of vintage artifacts and comic books. But he longs to make a human connection–even if it means twisting the truth to get it. When he dials the number on Rose Oliveri’s 9/11 missing poster and reaches her mother, Vivian, one innocent lie leads to another, and before Jonah knows it, reality becomes uncertain even to him.

Stalked by Rose’s ghost, Jonah finds himself falling deeper into his own fabrications as he wanders a city turned surreal in terrorism’s settling dust. But when he meets Jane, an irreverent student of psychoanalysis, he’ll be forced to choose between illusion and the possibility of a true relationship.

Both a poetic journey into the heart of post-9/11 New York and a darkly comic commentary on how we cope with loss, The Nostalgist is a striking debut novel from a masterful new author.

Review: The Nostalgist is a parable of the worst that can happen when we give voice to our fantasies, when they leave our heads through our words and draw innocent believers into a web of false hope. Jonah is both a villain – a manipulative sociopath – and the hero we can’t help but identify with on his search for companionship and redemption. His “lost love” Rosie is no less complicated for being dead throughout the novel – she is an uncomfortable pill to swallow with what she has to say about how we mourn for our lost loved ones. Griffin Hansbury reminds us that the unbearable pain of loss and unrealized dreams can be lifted, ever so slightly, but looking around for the joys right in front of us.

Source: ARC from MP Publishing

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