Flavia on the case(s)

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GOLDEN TRESSES OF THE DEAD. By Alan Bradley. Random House Audio. Read by Jayne Entwistle. 9 hours; 7 CDs. $35. Also available in print from Delacorte Press, 323 pages. $26.

A new novel starring Flavia de Luce, the precocious young English girl who uses her extensive knowledge of chemistry and her nosiness to help her solve a remarkable number of crimes in or near her sleepy but often deadly village, is always a cause for celebration.

Flavia, who’s 12 now, has seen a number of changes since the series began. Her mother had died in mysterious circumstances when Flavia was a baby, and now her father, who never really got over either his wife’s disappearance or his terrible experiences in World War II, has also died, leaving Flavia an orphan.

Despite threats to the contrary from various quarters, Flavia is continuing to live at Buckshaw, the crumbling mansion that now belongs to her. Her companions are the two older sisters who have long persecuted her; her annoying younger cousin, Undine; Mrs. Mullet, the cook; and Arthur Dogger, who served in the war with her father and came home with him to be his valet.

As the latest entry in this delightful series opens, Flavia’s oldest sister, Ophelia, is finally getting married to Dieter Schrantz, the former German pilot who was shot down by a Royal Air Force pilot and stayed on in England after the war. It’s now the early 1950s.

Flavia and Dogger have recently decided to put their considerable skills to good use by opening an investigative agency, Arthur W. Dogger & Associates, with Flavia being the associates. To their surprise, in quick succession they find themselves with two challenging cases. The first is thrust upon them when, at the reception at Buckshaw after the big wedding,  Flavia discovers a severed human finger stuffed into the wedding cake. The second arrives in the form of one Anastasia Prill calling on them to ask for their assistance in the theft of threatening letters dealing with the work of Miss Prill’s father, the well-known homeopathic practitioner Dr. Augustus Brocken.

Dr. Brocken is now elderly, incapacitated and a resident at Gollingford Abbey, a nursing home.

The “who” of the severed finger is fairly easily discovered – the finger, which had been embalmed, belonged to a recently deceased woman who was a famous guitarist. The why and how are not nearly so apparent.

And then Miss Prill turns up murdered at her home, bringing the disapproving local constabulary into Flavia and Dogger’s case.

Throw in two women missionaries who have been toiling in Africa but are now guests at Buckshaw, thanks to the vicar’s wife, some mischief on the part of Undine, and – could it be? – a hint of a love interest when Flavia befriends Colin Collier, the son of the late guitarist, and you’ve a book that’s every bit as lively and entertaining as fans of Flavia would expect.

The books starring Flavia are always delightful. She’s quite precocious but also endearingly naïve in some ways, and her first-person narration is often very funny, though delivered in earnest seriousness. The mysteries are usually interesting, even if sometimes a little far-fetched, but  then you don’t read Flavia de Luce books just to find out who done it. You read them to be amused and entertained in a wholly original way, and because you have come to love this lonely but spunky little girl, now on the verge of becoming a young lady.

I usually read the print version because I can’t wait, and then listen to the audio book mostly for the great pleasure of hearing Jayne Entwistle give perfect voice to Flavia, one of the most interesting, sometimes maddening but always lovable characters you could ever hope to meet.

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Depressing, yet compelling

Paul O’Connor reviews a book he meant to read long ago, one that still offers important lessons. Like Paul, I find that I will listen to the audio version of difficult books I cannot make myself read in print.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM. By Neil Sheehan. Random House. 790 pages. Paperback, $21. Audiobook. Random House Audio, narrated by Robertson Dean. 35 hours, 47 minutes. $30.75.

A book sat on my shelf for nearly 30 years because I dreaded opening it. I knew I should read it, and I wanted to read it, and I moved it with me to three new houses and assiduously guarded it from the book sales I used to cull my library.

But I just could not collect the courage to do so.

That’s why A Bright Shining Lie sat on my bookshelf, largely unread, from about the time it won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for author Neil Sheehan until December, when I finally committed to listening to the audiobook version.

My dread was justified. It is one of the most depressing, dispiriting and demoralizing books I’ve ever read. At the end, I felt I had completed the most awful kind of penance that Father O’Leary assigned back when I went to confession as a kid.

John Paul Vann was a brilliant American soldier, sent to Vietnam as an adviser early in the war, long before it had been Americanized. He arrived with a distinguished pedigree and a war record of exceptional courage established in Korea. And he quickly determined why the war was not being won.

One excruciating time after another, Vann urged South Vietnamese commanders to commit to battle or to adjust tactics or to change strategy, always to see them do the opposite. The ARVNs were not there to fight the communist insurgents, he painfully learned, but to serve as the military reserve that would protect the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem from a military coup. And when he tried to explain this to American commanders in country, he was rebuffed and muffled.

The result was an insurgency that was not destroyed when the opportunity arose and that grew steadily through the years, years during which he proposed different strategies and tactics and during which he was repeatedly ignored until the time for a particular strategy or tactic had passed.

Vann did not struggle in obscurity. He ingratiated himself to the press and was a major source for much of the pessimistic reporting that emanated from Vietnam in the early 1960s, especially David Halberstam’s New York Times’ coverage and his 1965 The Making of a Quagmire.

To the press, Vann was one of the rare American military persons who could see the obvious: The war was not being won. Reporters admired him for his courage, honesty and integrity.

But this book is not titled Bright Shining Lie only because America’s leaders lied to themselves and to the American people about what was happening in Vietnam. Vann, himself, was a magnificent lie in his personal life, and it is that story that drives a large part of the book.

There are no heroes in these pages, just deeply flawed characters who lead the U.S. down a horribly wrong path, one that leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

I dreaded reading it, but once I began listening to Robertson Dean’s narration, I could not abandon it. This is still considered one of the most important explanations of how the American government and military failed in Vietnam, and it is also one hellacious story about the life of one exceptional, but flawed, American officer.

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Reacher tackles a ghost and a host of bad guys

Bob Moyer is taking time out from his travels to catch up on some of his favorite authors.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer.

PAST TENSE. By Lee Child. Delacorte Press. 382 pages. $28.99.

Wow. It takes a good writer to drive a single plot competently down a path to a satisfying destination. It takes a gifted writer to wrangle two plots through a narrative to the end. It takes a genius like Lee Child, however, to herd five plot lines into the corral of a rousing conclusion. Five.

Wow.

It all begins when Jack Reacher finds himself near his ancestral home — the New England town where his Dad was brought up. He stops by simply to see where his family lived. He avails himself of the help of a clerk in the records office and the town’s lawyer, to no avail. Of course, it’s not that simple, and he spends the rest of the book finding the long-gone village and the site of his family home.

Meanwhile, a young couple with a mysterious suitcase and a malfunctioning car end up in a motel that makes the Bates Motel look like kindergarten.

Meanwhile, Reacher manages to cross a property line and its owner in that inimitable fashion with which he has endeared himself to so many, so often. After that first altercation, he expects more.

Meanwhile, Reacher, light sleeper that he is, hears a cry for help in the middle of the night, a damsel in distress. A perfect chance for our knight with a bankcard in his shoe to step up. He almost literally disarms the loutish son of a local crime poobah. The local constabulary immediately tries to get Reacher out of town so that the out-of-town thugs they expect won’t cause any trouble.

Meanwhile, the clerk and lawyer have taken up with each other and disappeared. Circumstances lead Reacher to be concerned about the safety of the lawyer, whom the thugs may mistake for him.

Meanwhile — well, needless to say, multiple plot lines offer multiple opportunities for Reacher to demolish multiple bad guys. The lines all lead to the motel, of course. There, the female of the couple demonstrates that there’s a little Reacher in all of us, while she and Reacher work their way out.

But Jack goes back in. He isn’t finished. Author Child utilizes his protagonist’s proclivity to follow his curiosity to a conclusion, and to ignore warnings that he may be killed, creating havoc for others along the way. And what’s important? Finding out where he comes from, and why there’s a ghost who lives in town with his Dad’s name. There’s no mystery that Jack will resolve the mystery, or else. He ends up back on the highway, waiting for a ride into another mess not of his making — until he gets there.

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The right touch

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

When Stuart Woods is good, he’s really quite good, but sometimes he seems to be just cranking out yet another Stone Barrington ode to the joys of being ridiculously wealthy.

A Delicate Touch, No. 48 in the series (which started in 1991), is better than most of Barrington’s recent adventures. In fact, it’s timely and entertaining.

As fans will know, Stone Barrington is a very, very rich New York lawyer who used to be a cop. Woods’ stories about him are over the top descriptions of what it’s like to use unlimited funds to live extremely well. Imagine having more money than you can spend, a private airplane (or is it two?), a large yacht and multiple lavish homes here and there around the globe. Oh, and to fill out the fantasy, you’re a good-looking man who has multiple beautiful, sophisticated women eager to have sex with you when it suits your busy schedule, with no permanent strings attached. And these aren’t just any women. They are high-powered politicians, journalists and other urbane women of the world. It’s all very civilized, of course.

The main problem for some of us readers is that the Stone Barrington books are supposed to fall in the suspense/mystery genre, and sometimes in recent books, the only suspense is how much more conspicuous Barrington’s consumption can get. In some of the novels, the tales of bedroom antics and the jet-setting lifestyle are pretty much all Woods offers. Sometimes, the story is awfully thin. It all gets a bit old.

But not this time.

It all starts when a friend, the ex-wife of Stone’s good friend Dino Bacchetti, the police commissioner of New York, asks Stone for help opening a large, old-fashioned safe she found in the library of her late father’s home. She’s about to sell the house, and she needs to deal with the safe in a hurry.

Of course, Stone has someone who can help her, and the safe is opened to reveal lots of money and some very interesting – and potentially dangerous – files.

What follows is a story that could be right out of today’s headlines. Among the papers in the safe are incriminating accounts of some of the city’s most dangerous mob-related criminals. Some of these people have gone to great lengths to erase their family’s notorious history, changing their names and creating a façade of successful, upstanding citizens.

The scion of one of these families is poised to run for president of the United States as an independent, against one of Stone’s many well-connected love interests, Secretary of State Holly Barker.

Stone’s possession of the files puts him and others in danger, but he and an intrepid New York Times investigative reporter (who is, of course, a sexy and willing woman) and others in his circle are determined to do the right thing and expose the villains.

The story offers election rigging, computer manipulation, rumors of Russian meddling, daring journeys to escape possible assassins and, in general, enough suspense, action and mystery to provide a lively, interesting story.

Even when they have some substance, Woods’ novels are light, fast-paced fare, well suited to audio books. And Tony Roberts does an outstanding job of reading with a straight face,  er ,,, voice.

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“In my life…”

Paul O’Connor returns to Briar Patch Books with a review of a book published in the spring of 2016.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

PAUL MCCARTNEY: THE LIFE. By Philip Norman. Little, Brown and Company. 816 pages. $32.

For those Americans of a certain age, The Beatles represent more than music.

Although John, Paul and George had started playing together in 1960, and Ringo joined them in 1962, the Beatles were largely unknown in America until December 1963 when U.S. radio stations began playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

The reaction was immediate and explosive. Beatles’ songs jumped to the top of the charts, and Beatlemania consumed the American consciousness. The Beatles changed our music, our hairstyles and our dress. But most important, they lifted our spirits.

That’s because they came along just a few weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and even a seventh grader, as I was at the time, could tell that this Christmas had not been as joyous as all of those before because of that.

Each of us had a favorite Beatle, and mine was my namesake. Paul McCartney was the cute one, the good-looking one, the girls in my class said. I hoped for a residual benefit from sharing his name. (It didn’t happen. My classmate crush, Michelle, never seemed to notice me. Michelle, how’s that for a coincidence?)

Veteran music industry reporter Philip Norman was not as much the McCartney fan as I. To the contrary, in writing an earlier biography of John Lennon, he had become associated as a Paul critic. When the opportunity arose to write about Paul, he knew better than to seek McCartney’s assistance, settling happily, for the performer’s simple lack of opposition to the project.

For a fan who did not follow the Beatles ‘ inside story, preferring just to listen to the music and ask, “Why can’t they just get along and make more great music?” this book explains what happened to break up the world’s most successful band ever: money, musical preferences, ego and Yoko Ono. And Norman tries his best to explain how, in the years after the break-up, John, Paul and George seemed both to love and hate each other at the same time.

The author is also able to provide so much more a complete portrait of McCartney than one would get from the occasional news feature or TV news spot. He was generous but parsimonious, gracious but petty. He smoked too much pot, was a doting father, a loyal son and brother, he cheated on his girlfriends but not his wife. You like the McCartney portrayed here, but sometimes you don’t.

Norman has produced a definitive and authoritative professional biography. For those who follow celebrity news, it’s full of information about bass guitars and back-up musicians, drugs and jealousies. Those who don’t will probably find that the book drags after midpoint. Norman was confronted with a quandary biographers sometimes face, a story in which the protagonist climaxes so early in life, about 30.

Sure, there were Linda, Wings, the Lennon murder, the Japan arrest and jailing, the Heather Mills marriage and divorce, all of which are great stories and would be enough, if they happened in someone else’s life, to justify a biography, but … little of that meant as much to me, and I would assume to other readers of my age, as the accounts of The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road or Penny Lane, or how they lifted us out of the post-assassination sadness.

  • Paul T. O’Connor is a longtime newsman – political reporter, columnist and editorial writer in North Carolina. He also taught at the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

 

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A little coincidence…

Bob Moyer keeps trying to catch up on all the books he’s read and intends to review, but there are so many ways to have fun and put off writing. …

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

SHELL GAME. By Sara Paretsky. William Morrow. 385 pages. $27.95

Over the course of 17 novels, she’s been beat up, tied up, drugged, kidnapped, chained, mugged, thrown into the trunk of a car, thrown out of a car, you name it. In spite of it all, however, P.I. V.I. Warshawski is in pretty good shape.

That’s because she runs. And practices resistance training. In her latest adventure, she runs after muggers, away from thugs, to catch an elevated train, with her dogs, and late to appointments all over Chicago. She also resists intimidation by a sheriff’s deputy and death in a fire, as well as being knifed by muggers and offended by immigrants.

The only weakness here is not her fault; it’s Sara Paretsky’s. The author attempts to meld two plot lines through coincidence. Now, any good mystery benefits from some coincidence. Paretsky comes up with enough of the substance for two or three novels.

One plot concerns the theft of Mideastern artifacts from archaeological sites; the other plot concerns the nieces of Vic’s (as the intrepid dean of female P.I.’s is called) former husband. They come from Portland and out of left field into a Shell Gamethat involves international corporations. Vic gets involved when one of the nieces disappears after attending a corporate weekend at an island resort. At the same time, the Canadian grandson of her dear friend and physician is implicated in the murder of a man who possibly smuggles artifacts. The author spends a lot of time spinning a web of coincidences to twine these two lines together.

Fortunately, she’s a genius, as author Lee Child says. She keeps the action and wit moving as fast as always, and the usual amenities obtain — her downstairs neighbor, Chicago setting, political rants and good places to eat when you visit the Windy City. She also manages to dig up a new boy friend, an archaeologist involved with the objects at the heart of the story. It’s another great story of bad people in the world, up against a good detective — who happens to be a woman.

 

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Through a screen, darkly

From time to time, my younger son, a Navy officer, contributes a review. This one is particularly timely, not to mention thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Lt. Samuel Brinson

LIKEWAR: The Weaponization of Social Media. By P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 416 pages. $28

Over the last few years, the internet and specifically social media have grown to be the most prevalent form of interaction between the newsmakers and news consumers in our society. This change has led to lots of thought pieces and handwringing from those who view this as the beginning of the end for our properly informed Western society. In LikeWar, P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking, two high level National Security experts, take their swing at what has happened and where we are to go from here. If you read their book, your beliefs about the state of media, social interaction and society as a whole will be questioned, while your understanding of the events that have led us here will be greatly increased.

LikeWar explores many facets of our recent technological boom, taking us from the beginning of the internet through the current events of Russian meddling and even front-line battlefield issues of which the average reader is probably unaware. This book provides a playbook for the future by outlining the past, as all good military and strategic history books do. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book is soon referenced in college courses covering our current state of affairs and showing some views of how people should move forward.

Although thoroughly cited and well researched (as evidenced by its more than 100 pages of end notes), this book is shockingly easy to read and will keep the reader glued to the pages.

LikeWar lays out why we shouldn’t be looking at social media and our online presence in the innocent ways that we did when they began. Every tweet, every post and every click on the internet can actually be interpreted as a shot fired in the new 21stcentury war, which is waged in the airwaves. Singer and Brooking do an excellent job of illustrating this by showing comparisons between modern issues and historic lessons as old as the “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s Republic.

This book is a must read for any person who wishes to be an involved citizen in the 21stcentury, as it makes us all aware of just how important every action we take in our day-to-day lives is, even those occurring through a screen. While I can’t promise that you’ll feel better about our current state of affairs after reading LikeWar, I believe it is vitally important that every American read this book and take to heart what it lays before us.

Posted in American History, Contemporary Nonfiction, Current Events, Military, Politics, Social Media | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Driving out the dark spirits

Don’t you just love it when a reviewer introduces you to a promising-sounding series with a lot of books in it?

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DESOLATION MOUNTAIN. By William Kent Krueger. Atria Books. 320 pages. $26

When the mining company moved out of the Iron Lake area, it left behind a ravaged landscape and a devastated economy. Over time, however, the land began to recover and the people of the Ojibwe Reservation lived through it, as they have lived through so much. Now, however, the mining company wants to move back in, and Cork O’Connor’s son starts having visions of a great bird shot from the sky.

Then a  senator opposed to the mining dies in a plane crash on the mountain. Soon, the Minnesota landscape crawls with federal forces, black vehicles and dark spirits. Cork O’Connor, the mixed blood ex-sheriff at the heart of this series, starts his own investigation, aided by former agent Bo Thorson, imported from a previous stand-alone novel of William Kent Krueger’s, The Devil’s Bed. No one can account for conflicting agencies flooding the territory, and soon locals start disappearing. The pace picks up, and so do the visions of a dark beast in the woods.

Krueger has mined this territory steadily for some years (this is novel 17 in the series), and he has not exhausted the vein of authenticity he uncovered. He neither plays up the romanticism of the Native American life, nor plays down the spiritual reality of the people. It is only the innate sense of the peoples’ way of life and knowledge of the land that enables O’Connor to help bring the truth to light. It is only great skill at developing suspense while moving action along that enables Krueger to make this one of the most action-packed of the series.

By the end of the book, the dark spirits have been driven out, and the reader’s spirits have been lifted.

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A book for those who love books, bookshops and mysteries

I somehow misplaced this review when Bob Moyer submitted it last fall. He politely nudged me to find and post it.  And now I won’t rest until I have the book.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE BOOKSHOP OF YESTERDAYS. By Amy Meyerson. Park Row Books. 364 pages. $32.99.

Some books are scary.

Not Halloween or Stephen King scary, not even Nicholas Sparks scary. Scary because just as you settle in with a satisfying cast of characters, a comfortable setting and a good narrative flow, a suspicion surfaces — will the premise behind all this hold up? Will the resolution undermine this good feeling? In other words, will the sum be as good as the parts?

This book is one of those books. Miranda, who hasn’t seen her uncle since she was a child, flies home to his funeral in L.A. She had received a copy of The Tempest and a card that says Understanding prepares us for the future just before she left. She associated it with the scavenger hunts her uncle set up for her to learn different lessons. After the funeral, she learns that he left her his bookstore — Prospero’s Books. It’s a pre-gentrification landmark in Silver Lake, just below Griffith Park. It’s been there a long time, but apparently not much longer — it’s saddled with debt. She decides to stay, to try to shore it up, to at least sell it. It’s a place that makes any booklover feel at home, with books chosen to suit the owner, not the customer; with a manager who avoids hard financial questions; customers, including a retired doctor and a screenwriter, who hang out all day; and a tatted-up barista who has been there almost as long as she is old,

At the same time, Miranda follows the clues her uncle has set up, a literary scavenger hunt that leads her through the works of writers including Hemingway, Austen and Erica Jong, as well as Shakespeare. Like the games he set up for her as a child, these clues are not just clever verbal ones. They are contextual clues that force her to examine the setting, the subject matter, engaging her and the reader in figuring out just what her uncle wants her to find out — and her parents don’t.

That’s where the concern comes in. Can this question he keeps posing, that sends her across the Southern California countryside, have a big enough “reveal” to justify the time and commitment Miranda and the reader put into the quest?

The answer is yes. Besides being a bookstore-lover’s delight, the book pays off with a nicely unwound mystery that keeps the reader engaged right up to the denouement. And that is?  Well, you’ll have to visit The Bookshop to find out. Don’t expect anything but a grunt from the manager. And don’t forget to tip the barista.

 

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Stephanie Plum’s latest adventure is delicious

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOOK ALIVE TWENTY-FIVE. By Janet Evanovich. Penguin Audio. 7 hours; 6 CDs. Read by Lorelei King. $32. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Stephanie Plum, the not-very-intrepid bounty hunter in Trenton, N.J., somehow finds new ways to career more or less unscathed through her zany, dangerous and outrageous life. That’s welcome news for fans of the prolific Janet Evanovich and Stephanie, her finest creation.

You’d think Evanovich would run out of crazy ways for Stephanie to get into trouble as she pursues the criminals who have run out on the bail her cousin Vinnie provided them. But her fertile imagination comes through again in “Look Alive Twenty-Five.”

Through a series of circumstances including her habitual shortage of money and Cousin Vinnie’s deal-making, Stephanie suddenly finds herself managing the Red River Deli in Trenton. Lula, the colorful former ho’ who’s her sidekick in the bond enforcement business, joins her with enthusiasm. After all, what’s not to like about a job that includes free food?

As it turns out, there’s a lot not to like, starting with the fact that Stephanie’s three most recent predecessors as deli manager have disappeared mysteriously, in quick succession, leaving only one shoe behind.

As the disappearances continue, Stephanie finds the two men in her life, her boyfriend, Joe Morelli, a homicide detective who’s working the disappearance cases, and Ranger, the mysterious and very sexy head of a security company with whom she has a – shall we say? – complicated relationship, teaming up to make sure she and her shoes are safe 24 hours a day.

Stephanie’s running pretty ragged trying to keep the deli functioning while pursuing her bail-jumpers as time allows. As usual, there are always unexpected complications surrounding the people she’s trying to haul into court, complications such as feral chickens and cat kidnapping.

After an employee Ranger assigns to protect Stephanie becomes one of the half-shod kidnap victims, Ranger, Stephanie and Morelli are all united in the quest to find out who’s doing the snatching, and why.  Oh, and Wolf, the man (or is he really human?) who appears from time to time in her locked apartment and then vanishes in a puff of smoke, is also involved in the quest. The stakes get higher as some corpses start to appear.

And Stephanie’s balancing act gets even more challenging when the disappearances and Lula’s unorthodox waitressing and sandwich-making talents turn the deli into a social media sensation.

Then there’s the breakfast burrito food truck incident. But really, there’s no need for spoilers. If you’re a fan of Stephanie’s grab this book. If you’re not, why not?

As always, Lorelei King does a terrific job of bringing the story to entertaining life in the audio version.  Her range of voices and accents is amazing.

 

 

 

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