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…in which the Birthday Fairy and Santa deliver – big time…

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Well, I did promise book pictures, didn’t I? And so here they come… I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with having a birthday quite close to Christmas so the gifts double up at this time of year, and despite everyone’s best intentions, there are always books!

First off, some modest arrivals for my birthday:

These lovelies came from OH and my BFF J. (amazingly, the Offspring managed to avoid books altogether for the birthday!)

The Peirene title is from J. and she very cleverly managed to pick the one I probably most want to read from their list! OH was also very clever in that he managed to find a BLCC I haven’t got or read, and also a book (the Godwin) which ties in with my current interest in things with a sort of link to the French Revolution (plus it has a *wonderful* David self-portrait on the cover). The crossword book? I love a crossword – I kid myself it keeps my brain alert…

As for Christmas… well, here are the bookish arrivals…!

First up, I always take part in the LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa and this year my books came courtesy of the lovely Simon at Stuck in a Book and these are they:

Simon knows that we share a love of a certain kind of writing and so picked some wonderful books I don’t have by A.A. Milne, Stephen Leacock and Saki – I’ve already been dipping and giggling… And it wouldn’t be a gift from Simon if there wasn’t a title in there by his beloved Ivy Compton-Burnett! I confess to owning several titles but not having plucked up the courage to read one yet – and fortunately I didn’t have this one, which is a beautiful edition, so maybe this should be where I start with Ivy… 😉

Next up a few treats from J. She reminded me when we met up recently that it was actually 35 years since we first met (gulp!) and she knows me and my obsessions and my reading habits well. These were wonderful bookish choices – an Edmund Crispin classic crime novel (can’t go wrong with Gervase Fen), a Sacheverell Sitwell set in Russia, and a marvellous sounding book of pastiches which has already had me giggling – these humorous books are obviously putting the merry in Christmas this year!

The Offspring decided Christmas was the time for books for me (as well as some other lovely gifts) and the above was the result – “The Futurist Cookbook” was from Youngest, the Plath letters (squeeeee!) from Middle and “The Story of Art” plus the Mieville from Eldest. Very excited about these and wanting to read them all at once…. 🙂

Finally, not to be left out, OH produced these treats! Yes, *another* BLCC I don’t have, a fascinating sounding book on Chekhov and a really lovely book on Surrealist art. The latter is particularly striking and has a plate of the most marvellous Magritte painting which I hadn’t seen before and I can’t stop looking at:

It’s called “The Empire of Lights” and it’s stunning and this doesn’t do it justice…

So, I have been very blessed this Christmas – thank you all my lovely gift-giving friends and family! And once I shake off this head cold I’ve also been blessed with, I really need to get reading… 🙂

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Christmas reading – from magazines to academia…!

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I always hope to get a lot of reading done over the Christmas period, but what with family visits and the like it never seems to happen… I decided not to aim for too much this year, but I’ve ended up spending time with an oddly disparate range of reading material!

To be honest, I mostly try not to buy magazines nowadays, because I find it hard enough to manage the distractions from reading at the best of times. However, a couple did slip into the house recently:

I picked up the London Review of Books whilst collecting one of the Offspring from the railway station for their Christmas visit; I was early and had rather foolishly forgotten to bring a book!! And needing something to keep me company with my coffee, this was the obvious choice. The review of the Gorbachev book alone is excellent reading – I obviously need to buy this more often.

As for The Happy Reader, I’ve been contemplating subscribing for ages, and the fact that this issue had much content on Zamyatin’s “We” tipped the scales. Fascinating stuff.

In complete contrast to magazines, I also had a wrestle with this beast of a book, Richard Clay’s “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs”:

This book, I have to confess, has been vexing me much of late. I wanted to read it VERY very badly, and it’s quite impossible to get hold of – out of print, the cheapest copies online run to some £800 (!!!) and I can’t justify that… I was getting frustrated searching for a copy (and no, the local library hasn’t got one) until I stumbled on a site which told me which university libraries held it. Fortunately, one of the universities on that list happened to be one where an Offspring works who is able to borrow books from the library…. (I knew I sent my children to university for a good reason). Said offspring borrowed the book and brought it home, and so I have had to cram reading it into a week – which is not easy for a non-academic like me, as it’s a very academic book (one of those where the notes often take up more space on the page than the actual main text). Nevertheless, I get what he’s saying – and the arguments are VERY interesting – and so I’m glad that the Offspring has managed to get it back safely. I admit I was terrified of it going missing and the Offspring concerned receiving a very big bill. Yes, I *will* go to any lengths possible if I want to read a particular book (and I would like to *own* a copy of this one, but that ain’t happening any time soon by the look of things…)

So what’s up next after all that brain-frazzling activity? Well, there are the Christmas books, which I will post on in a couple of days , and I also still have some recently arrived review books – here they are:

Yes, it’s the Russians again…

The top book is a lovely volume from Notting Hill Editions which I’ll be covering for Shiny New Books in the new year, so look out for that.

Their books are just so pretty…

The other two are from the lovely Alma Books:

I’ve been waiting for the new edition of “The Devils” to come out, as it’s a Dosty I haven’t read – and it’s a chunkster, so I may start 2018 going down the rabbit hole of another big book! The Turgenev was an unexpected bonus, and I’m keen to read this too after looking at the description.

I’ll post about my reading year soon too, when I’ve finished pulling my thoughts together. In the meantime, what Christmas reading have you been up to? 🙂

A very merry – and bookish! – Christmas from the Ramblings!

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Some bookish choices for seasonal reading! 🙂

As usual, I’d like to send seasonal wishes to all readers of my Ramblings here – posts will probably thin out a little as I celebrate with family, but there *will* be books arriving over Yule (and some have already breached the defences on my recent birthday!)

I’ll post piccies soon, and eventually a round up of my reads of the year, but in the meantime – a very Merry Christmas to all (and to all a good night! – as Tiny Tim would say!)

The perfect Christmas crime read? @BL_Publishing

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“Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith

The observant amongst you will have noticed the arrival at the Ramblings, earlier in the year, of a rather special book in the British Library Crime Classics series. This was a lovely copy of “Portrait of a Murderer” by Anne Meredith, the 50th in the series that BL have released, and they were kind enough to send me a beautifully wrapped copy of the special hardback edition which comes with an essay on Christmas crime fiction by the ever-knowledgeable Martin Edwards. The book is subtitled “A Christmas Crime Story” and it certainly lived up to all the hype, making it the perfect Christmas reading for me!

Meredith was a pseudonym of Lucy Malleson, who wrote a number of novels under the name Anthony Gilbert and was a member of the Detection Club. This novel was very highly regarded by Dorothy L. Sayers, a founder member of that Club, and it’s not hard to see why as it’s a little different from the standard Golden Age mystery fare.

The book begins with the bald statement that Adrian Gray was murdered at Christmas 1931 by a member of his own family – a particularly striking opening paragraph if there ever was one! Following this dramatic start, we are gradually introduced to the members of the extended Gray family, and most of them are a pretty unpleasant bunch. They range from eldest son Richard, obsessed with status and locked into a cold, soulless and childless marriage, through to daughter Olivia married to shady financier Eustace and taking in spinster Amy, crushed Isobel, the nicely normal Ruth and lawyer husband Miles, as well as the prodigal son, artist Hildebrand. They’re a colourful bunch, and Meredith brings them to life wonderfully, gradually introducing them to us and revealing their personalities and their peccadilloes.

This is a difficult book to discuss in detail without spoiling the plot and the wonderful surprises the author springs on the reader; because, actually, we soon know who the murderer is, and so the joy of the book is much like one of those old TV episodes of “Columbo” – you know all along whodunnit, why they did it and how they did it, but you have no idea if and when they’ll be caught. Controversially, Meredith has a detective, Ross Murray, who has a bit of a past of his own but who plays a minimal part in the story; because what we have here, really, is a study of personalities, of family dynamics, and it’s absolutely gripping.

For the most part, the Grays are a nasty bunch. As we find out, old Adrian was a tyrant with a nasty past (all is revealed eventually!) and his children are pretty warped too. Richard is completely obsessed by status and a wish for a title, and everything in his life is subsumed to this. He does have his own passions, however, and they are causing him particular financial issues. Son-in-law Eustace is a very shady character, involved in dodgy financial dealings which threaten to ruin him, his father-in-law, and a lot of other people too. Poor Isobel has suffered a bad marriage and loss of a child, and is in effect a broken woman. However, Ruth has managed to escape from this madness and has a nice, normal family life with her husband and the pair are definitely the most balanced of the Gray clan. (Hilde)Brand is the artist of the family, a real black sheep who has made a disastrous marriage, fathered several children and squanders his talents trying to eke out a living. Frankly, most of the family have a motive for murder, and you do wonder about the sanity of Adrian Gray in having them around him at Christmas time…

Meredith does marvels with her material here, gradually revealing a little more about the family and their background and circumstances, allowing you to watch the processes taking place in the murderer’s mind, following the developments as the police investigate and an arrest is made, and leading you on to a conclusion that perhaps in retrospect was inevitable but is nevertheless very, very satisfying. Her characters are not afraid to discuss the deeper meanings of life, the need to get out and live rather than scrabble around after superficialities, and it’s clear that the author feels strongly that you should go where your talents take you and grasp every chance that comes your way. And SPOILER ALERT the title of the book has a double meaning which becomes very significant when you reach the end of the book – more than that I cannot say.

Have you ever thought, Brand, how many things there are in life, and how terribly few we manage to keep? They all go slipping past, and we’re left in the midst of plenty with nothing in our hands.

I found “Portrait of a Murder” an absolutely gripping read, and definitely worthy of the status of 50th BLCC! It digs deeper than many a GA crime novel, really getting into the psychology and motivation of its characters. I became very fond of old Adrian’s victims and glad that the nastier characters got some kind of comeuppance. As for the murderer – well, their motivation is understandable, there is quite a lot of sympathy for them, and yet the final resolution is the best one possible. I don’t want to be any more specific for fear of spoiling things!

Were there any downsides? Well, the portrait of Eustace Moore was sullied for me by relying on a stereotypical version of a financier of Jewish background, which was very uncomfortable in places. It’s a stereotype that we should have moved on from by now and I wasn’t happy reading this in a book published in the 1930s, but I usually try to put stuff like this in a box and make allowances for the context of the times. I also thought that the character of Brand’s wife, a filthy slattern who slept around whenever she wanted, was a little melodramatic and unreasonable, but maybe that’s my feminist sensibilities coming into play (and there is a reason for her behaviour needing to be so bad, which I won’t go into…)

However, despite these minor caveats, this book was a real winner for me. The British Library Crime Classics imprint has brough real reading joys over the years, and they tend to vary from lighter works that a reader enjoys and then moves on from, to more substantial works that perhaps stretch and challenge the genre a bit more, and definitely stay with you. “Portrait of a Murderer” definitely falls into the latter camp; it’s one of the strongest entries in the series, a real joy and a treat to read, and a book that leaves you musing on what you want to do with your life and whether it’s too late to make some changes! A wonderful treat for the GA crime lover and the ideal Christmas read! 🙂

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

The slippery nature of reality @mjohnharrison @commapress

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You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

As the press blurb states, MJH is considered by many a figurehead of genre writing in the UK. His stories first began appearing in sci-fi collections in the 1960s, and he went on to produce some stunning novels featuring the fictional world of Viriconium, which are landmarks of speculative writing in my view. As well as many other sci-fi works (including the highly regarded “Kefahuchi Tract ” trilogy), he’s written mainstream novels and numerous quite brilliant short stories – the latter format being, of course, the one he began with. MJH aficionados tend to be a bit passionate and protective about his work; I think he’s one of the hidden jewels in the literary crown of this country, and so I was very, very excited by the prospect of a new collection of shorter works.

“You Should Come With Me Now”, published by Comma Press, contains a remarkable variety of works, ranging in length from half-page flash fiction fragments to longer stories, and all are frankly brilliant. In fact, the title and cover illustration are apt, as we are encouraged to take Harrison’s hand very trustingly and let him lead us into the labyrinth of his dazzling, unsettling and quite unique stories.

The shorter works are intriguing: tantalising fragments which tease you into wondering what would happen if they were developed into something longer, yet still satisfying in their own right. They’re often dry and laced with dark humour, reflecting the sheer fertility of MJH’s mind (and how can you not love an author who casually drops mention of Woolf. Mansfield and Richardson into a story?)

As for the longer pieces – well, where do I start? He’s a master of the twist and his stories constantly subvert your expectations. “In Autotelia” is a fine example; what begins as something which could be a relatively straightforward tale of a person on a train in an ordinary setting soon displays disturbing elements and ends by completely overturning any expectations you might have had. It’s the kind of storytelling MJH does so well and it’s amply on display here.

The realms created by MJH are often nebulous and undefined, and maybe that’s what I love about them. World-building can be too absolute, and since the real world is a fluid place, perhaps our fictional alternatives should be too. Certainly, the relationship between the places and people we’re reading about here and what we see outside our window is often unclear, which adds to the unsettling quality of the stories. Harrison’s work often negotiates the slippery intersection between reality and the fantastic in all its shapes and forms, an area notoriously difficult to navigate and which he handles with aplomb. Within all this, however, MJH is a wonderfully acute observer of human behaviour with all its foibles, quirks and eccentricities; whatever the setting, whether real world now or future world or world off to the side somewhere, humans are always humans…

M. John Harrison

The stories range far and wide over subjects as diverse as visiting aliens and the complexity of relationships in the modern age. MJH often looks at the darker side of things, but there is plenty of spiky wit too. Picking favourites would be unfair with such a rich and varied collection but I particularly noted: “Animals”, an unnerving take on the ghost story, featuring a woman encountering a tangible presence in a rented cottage; “The Good Detective”, perhaps the ultimate story of alienation from the modern world and your own psyche; “Psychoarcheology”, which takes the discovery of the remains of Richard III and riffs on it; “Imaginary Reviews” a series of capsule reviews of books which may or may not exist; and similarly “Babies from Sand”, a series of short numbered paragraphs peopled with shifting names, fluid characters and possibly spurious paintings. It’s not for nothing that the book is subtitled “Stories for Ghosts” as so many of the beings and their situations are undefined, fleeting and often not really there.

I was happily reading away and then suddenly, boom! About two-thirds of the way through the book we are clearly back in the vicinity of Viriconium with the story “Jack of Mercy’s”. Although this is not stated explicitly, any regular reader will recognise the names Crome, Ashlyme and Audsley King, which is enough of a giveaway. The tone of the writing in this story seemed to me to be particularly Viriconium-ish too; although that ever-shifting, ever-changing, ever-fluid place seems to have edged ever closer to our own world over the years, so much so that the lines are very blurred here. Needless to say, this was a particular treasure in the collection.

“You Should Come With Me Now” showcases Harrison at his best and each of these pieces, short or long, is an absolute gem, distinct and remarkable in its own right (which is something you can’t often say about a book of shorter works). The writing us just stunning; his powers have not ebbed over the years and if anything they’ve strengthened with maturity. I could go on and on about how brilliant these stories are; “You Should Come With Me Now” is a virtuoso performance by a master of his art, and a highlight of my reading year. What else do I need to say to convince you to make sure you read this book? 🙂

If I’ve managed to interest you at all in M. John Harrison, you can follow his blog here.

Review copy kindly provided by Comma Press, for which many, many thanks! 🙂

“…in the end in life life is endured..” *

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Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Last month you might have noticed a flurry of links on Twitter to ‘Books of the Year’ posts. However, as Simon at Stuck in a Book very sensibly pointed out, this was a wee bit premature, given that there was still one twelfth of the year left in which to read books – and he was right. Let’s face it, who knows what real joys and treasures might come up in December. Certainly, I’ve read one of the most extraordinary books of the year this month, and I’m still trying to get my head round it a little bit…

I should ‘fess up straight away that I’d never heard of either book or author before; but I saw an image of it, I think on Twitter?, and noticed that it was emblazoned with a quote from Italo Calvino. That’s enough to get my attention straight away – I have a reasonable number of books on my shelves because they’re lauded by him, or with forewords etc, and I trace my love of Primo Levi and his works back to the fact that I bought “The Periodic Table” when it first came out because of, indeed, a Calvino quote on the cover…

With all that water coming down and coming down, and when you were about to say: there, it’s stopping now, you didn’t have time to open your mouth before the water violently returned, a harsh and predetermined rancour, an irreversible obstinacy.

Any road up, as they say, “Malacqua” has been brought out by the independent publisher And Other Stories. Looking through their back catalogue, I do feel rather ashamed that this is the first of their publications I’ve read, and they’re obviously an imprint worth exploring. The publisher was kind enough to provide a review copy, and once picked up, this was a book I couldn’t put down.

So what exactly is the book *about*? “Malacqua” has an ostensibly simple plot: the city of Naples is afflicted with four days of unceasing, almost biblical rain. Strange occurrences follow: an eerie wailing is heard coming from empty buildings; certain coins begin to play music to the children of the city; buildings and roads collapse, killing citizens; the emergency services and those in charge are puzzled; and, mostly importantly perhaps, we see the effect the rains have on the lives and loves of the people of Naples.

“and Christ!, was this city built on a void?, …”

Weaving through the story is the melancholy journalist Carlo Andreoli, watching the rain come down and trying to fathom its meaning. He is there at the start of the story, reporting on the rain and wondering, like all Neapolitans, when it will stop and why, actually, is it falling? As the rains continue to fall, we dip in and out of the lives of the people of the city, and the constant downpour, although it has a physical effect on many (destroying their homes or indeed their person), has more effect on them mentally or psychologically. The state of suspense and the interruption to the normal daily routine brought about by the deluge allows the city dwellers to take stock, to consider their lives and dwell upon what might actually be the point of it all. In ordinary everyday existence these things never come to the surface, but the strangeness of the rain allows normal functions to be suspended and life to be pondered upon.

Those poor innocent creatures? Yes, of course, they will say that, along with other things, and other facts. But let us also say one more thing, that life is in the end reabsorbed in tranquillity, collective facts are pondered long enough to be diluted a little and confused, and in the end, off you go!, in the end why do you want us to care about this whole mess and this rain falling as if it had never fallen before, my friends, let us regather, let us regather everything.

I can’t go any further without talking about the book’s actual prose, as the writing is quite extraordinary and took my breath away. The language is a liquid, fluid construct, very stream of consciousness, that washes over you, rather like the rains and floods themselves, and the effect is hypnotic. The punctuation is eccentric, the prose lyrical and involving and this, together with the events related, produces an intense and very atmospheric read. The whole effect is to create a sense of waiting, of time in abeyance, of anticipation and when added to Andreoli’s melancholy feeling of impending doom, the strange episodes of wailing dolls and singing coins, there is a real sense that normality has been suspended and Naples has moved outside of the normal time-frame of the world.

I ended this deeply thought-provoking book pondering on its meanings and what the author was saying to me. Obviously, there’s an element of allegory in there, but Pugliese offers no easy solutions, no pat answers, and that’s very stimulating for me as a reader. Calvino comments “This is a book with a meaning and a force and a message”, and I agree that it is, though what it says is not necessarily straightforward. However, I think “Malacqua” considers the notion of what it is to be human, who we are and how we live our lives, how we react to strange and unusual happenings and the basic resilience of the human spirit – which is quite an achievement for a slim novel…

He gets up for the sake of it, but also sees that water, coming down and coming down interminably, and the daylight that hasn’t come. He wonders at that point, he really wonders: how will it end? Because to tell the truth life has fled, now, and sometimes if he and his wife are left on their own there’s always that dark presence, that sad thought of the life that was once their life and has now fled; and when this happens he gets up, always, and says I’m going to the garden because I’ve got things to do.

Author Pugliese

I need to say a word about the masterly translation by Shaun Whiteside, which deservedly received a PEN Award. Obviously, I can only judge the English rendering but it reads magnificently, lyrically, poetically and almost musically in places. If the Italian original is as complex as this, he must have done a hell of a good job to render it in another language… Apparently, the book was originally published in 1977 (damn! if only it had been issued in 6 months time….) but the author never allowed it to be reprinted; I wonder whether there is underlying comment on the state of Naples that I might not have picked up upon?

Will “Malacqua” be in my top books of the year? Most definitely! It’ll be very near the top I think, because it’s rare for me to be so blown away by a book nowadays. The combination of the beautiful and hypnotic language, the intriguing storyline and the thought-provoking concept makes this a stunning book that’s going to bother me mentally for a long time, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Review copy kindly provided by And Other Stories, for which many thanks!

*any weirdness you might perceive in any of the quotations is *not* me mistyping them but is in the original text…..

A trip to see Tove’s paintings – plus *restraint*!!

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Timing is most definitely all…

I had a lovely jaunt to London on Saturday to meet up with my old pal J, taking in a wonderful exhibition, some rambling round the city and a little shopping. The weather was cold but bright, which was perfect for us – and by Sunday the snow had hit so I’m glad it waited till our day out was over!

We tend traditionally to meet up before Christmas, but J’s idea was that we should nip down to Dulwich to see the exhibition of Tove Jansson’s paintings that was on at the art gallery there. As I love her work, I was happy to agree, although it did mean getting a very early train at silly o’clock to get a reasonably priced fare and arrive in London allowing time to travel to Dulwich.

And this is what we were going to see. As we both love Moomins, we visited the Moomin show at the Royal Festival Hall in July. However, we both think *very* highly of Jansson’s non-Moonin work, and this exhibition showcased that, with some wonderful paintings, drawings, sketches and illustrations that really emphasised her versatility. Of course, there were some wonderful Moomin things there too, so the experience was fabulous. I did find myself wondering what Jansson could have produced if she’d pursued a fine art course, but then we wouldn’t have had the Moomins – so, swings and roundabouts!

Alas, photos were not allowed inside, but afterwards we visited the *very* well stocked shop, and oh! the temptation! Tons of Moomin things, of course, but books and postcards and memorabilia and… Well, I was pretty restrained in the end and came away with a set of postcards (I rather collect postcards…) plus a Moomin card:

J, however, couldn’t resist the exhibition catalogue as it had her favourite work in it (and it was rather lovely), as well as the Tove-illustrated “Alice in Wonderland”. The latter was particularly stunning, and if I didn’t already own at least two copies (including the Mervyn Peake one, which may be my favourite) then I might have been tempted.

After leaving Dulwich and heading back to the centre of London via Fortnum and Mason (don’t ask…) we ended up lunching at Chipotle in Charing Cross Road (where I could function as a vegan):

and then rambled around the Pushkin House Russian book sale and a very fancy stationery shop called Quill. Amazingly, I bought nothing…. !

Late afternoon found us in Foyles cafe (I *love* Foyles and I *love* its cafe, in case you hadn’t noticed) where there was time for vegan cake and tea before a long browse round the shop. Here again restraint was the order of the day! Both J and I had realised at the exhibition that although we’d read all the main Moomin books, we didn’t actually have the collection of short pieces called “Tales from Moominvalley”. Exploring the children’s book section of Foyles revealed only two copies – which are no longer there….

For me to come home from a London trip with so few purchases is some kind of miracle (and perhaps reflects the fact that Christmas and birthday are coming up, plus I am awash with amazing review books at the moment). However – ahem – towards the end of the day J presented me with two BLCC titles she’d picked up in charity shops, plus my Christmas and birthday gifts for later in the month – which are suspiciously book-shaped… So maybe it wasn’t such a non-bookish day after all!

Incidentally, we spent much of our day getting about London by hopping on and off buses instead of resorting to the Tube as we’ve done in the past. The latter has become so much more manic of late (and I get vaguely claustrophobic in it at times), and how easy are the London buses now!?!? And much more pleasant too – sailing over Tower Bridge at the front of the top floor of a double-decker in the sun on the way to Dulwich is a wonderful memory of our day out! 🙂

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