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#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

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Dipping into Detection

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Yes, I’m afraid there’s been *more* dipping going on at the Ramblings! I think it must be a necessary counterpoint to all the Big Review Books I’m reading at the moment; I’ve obviously felt the need to also read something I can actually *finish* fairly quickly…

“Great Tales of Detection”, an unassuming looking collection (the cover is a bit dull, isn’t it?) from 1936, which was reprinted in 1976, came from a charity shop trawl recently; and I picked it up a) because it was edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and b) because the contents were by lots of lovely favourite crime authors and I think several are stories by them I haven’t read! So it was definitely one to come home with me. From the Oxfam if I recall correctly, and not too pricey (they seem to have had a bit of an overhaul since and the cost of some of their books seems to have suddenly spiked – which is a bit daft, because this has made me put several back on the shelves…)

Anyway, I have dipped, reading a short extract entitled “Was it Murder?” by Robert Louis Stevenson with a very entertaining take on how you actually define murder if the murderer wasn’t present and nothing can be proved! But the other story I found myself glued to was “The Yellow Slugs” a very dark little tale by H.C. Bailey, whom I’ve read before. Bailey’s detective was Reggie Fortune, a doctor with a strong hatred of cruelty, and I first made his acquaintance in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection “Capital Crimes” back in 2015. The stories there impressed me, and I did say how keen I was to read more about Reggie. Now, I know there is an e-book lurking somewhere on my tablet, but I always forget about those, so this was the first story I turned to in this anthology.

“The Yellow Slugs” opens with a tragic-sounding case; a teenage boy apparently going off the rails and accused of trying to drown his younger sister. Is the boy insane or just a nasty piece of work? Reggie is called into the case in his role as a doctor, but he soon sees there is more to things than meets the eye and of course starts to investigate.

It’s not a straightforward crime; all the evidence supports the boy being a bad lot, and the pious and upset parents, as well as their genteel lodger, seem blameless. However, an actual murder is discovered and it takes all Reggie’s persistence and ingenuity to get to the truth of the matter – which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish.

I was just as impressed with Bailey’s storytelling as when I first read his Reggie Fortune stories and I really *can’t* understand why his work is out of fashion. The plotting and characterisation are excellent, the scenario dark and compelling and it’s edge of the seat stuff while you desperately will Reggie on to sort things out. Bring back Reggie Fortune stories, I say!

The rest of the book looks to have plenty of treasures too: there are a number of authors here who have been picked up and celebrated by the British Library Crime Classics imprint, including John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A number of other familiar names are here, too, from my readings of Detection Club composite works, such as Father Ronald Knox and Milward Kennedy. And of course, there are Agatha and Dorothy…

So a positive cornucopia of delights into which to dip as an alternative to Big and Intense Books: you can look forward to hearing more about the stories in this volume when I need a quick crime break! 🙂

#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

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There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

Thrills and spills in a lost world – #1951club

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They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

The author who’s been a constant in most of my reading life is Agatha Christie; I first read her in my teens, collected all her books, and every return visit I’ve made to her work has been a delight. So the first thing I do when we decide upon a year for a ‘club’ is to see which titles of hers were published then, and as she was so prolific there’s usually something I can read! 1951 is no exception, as it saw the publication of her thriller, “They Came to Baghdad” – and what a marvellous read it turned out to be!

A 1980s cover that has nothing to do with the book…

I reckon I’ve read most, if not all, Christie titles, but with the thrillers I’m never quite sure. The latter (and indeed her other crime books) have tended to be overshadowed by her Marple and Poirot oeuvre, which is a great shame, particularly on the evidence of this book. I started “Baghdad” with absolutely no memory of it and no real knowledge of the plot but it took no time at all for me to be completely sucked in to Christie’s wonderful narrative and storytelling powers.

“Baghdad” has a far-ranging plot and features a large cast of characters. Central to the plot, and the heroine of our story, is a young woman called Victoria Jones. An inveterate liar, constantly making mendacious claims to liven up her life or get her another job, as the story opens she’s been sacked yet again. Running into a personable young man, Edward, she’s annoyed to find he’s off to work in Baghdad the next day, and determines to follow him out there despite having only a few pounds to her name. Miraculously, a job materialises the next day and she sets off as a companion to an American lady with a broken arm.

Meanwhile, while Victoria sets off on her adventure, the world has much trouble brewing. A number of other interested parties seem to be converging on Baghdad, and there are even hints that world leaders such as The President and Uncle Joe, will make it to the city. Initially, it isn’t clear who is on which side, although a man called Dakin and his sidekick Crosbie appear to be on the side of the angels. Then there is the great explorer Sir Rupert Crofton Lee, whose role seems ambiguous; Anna Scheele, who seems to have an air of the Mata Hari about her; and Carmichael, an undercover man vital to world security.

To go into the plot in any more detail would probably take as long as the book, and spoil it too. Suffice to say that Victoria has many adventures, from getting a job in Baghdad, being kidnapped and imprisoned, trying to rescue spies, getting roped in by the forces of good and even having a stint in the desert as a fake archaeologist (one of her various aliases is the niece of the famous Dr. Pauncefoot Jones, a recurring character on everyone’s lips who eventually appears). The plot is twisty and turny, full of action and red herrings, hugely enjoyable and very, very entertaining.

Agatha Christie in Syria in the late 1930s

Christie is sometimes condemned as lightweight, but there is an underlying theme of seriousness here that shouldn’t be ignored. 1951 was a year when there were plenty of tensions in the world; the post-War euphoria and sense of rapprochement between East and West at the defeat of Hitler had died down, the Iron Curtain was well and truly in place, and the arms race was seen as a growing threat to the world. Christie was obviously aware of the global situation and has the two sides going for a cautious approach to rapport which is threatened by a third party. It was obviously something she felt strongly about, having lived through two World Wars, and she has the likeable Dakin say at one point:

The delusion that by force you can impose the Millennium on the human race is one of the most dangerous delusions in existence. Those who are out only to line their own pockets can do little harm – mere greed defeats its own ends. But the belief in a superstratum of human beings – in Supermen to rule the rest of the decadent world – that, Victoria, is the most evil of all beliefs. For when you say, “I am not as other men” – you have lost the two most valuable qualities we have ever tried to attain: humility and brotherhood.

The moral message aside, there is so much to love in “They Came to Baghdad”. Christie knows how to pace her book and tell a story, and I ended up staying up much too late to finish it. Her characters are believable and the switch in one particular person’s behaviour entirely convincing; there’s humour too, and some beautiful descriptions which give a strong sense of place.

Victoria, breathing in hot choking yellow dust, was unfavourably impressed by Baghdad. From the Airport to the Tio Hotel, her ears had been assailed by continuous and incessant noise. Horns of cars blaring with maddening persistence, voices shouting, whistles blowing, then more deafening senseless blaring of motor horns. Added to the loud incessant noises of the street was a small thin trickle of continuous noise which was Mrs. Hamilton Clipp talking.

A love of archaeology shows in her descriptions of Victoria helping out and developing a fascination with ancient history; this speaks eloquently of Christie’s own life and her involvement in the expeditions of her husband, Max Mallowan. But one of the strongest elements which came through in my reading of this was the sense of a lost past and a missing landscape; the setting for the story, described and evoked so beautifully by Christie, has no doubt been changed beyond recognition because of war and conflict and this added an extra poignancy to the book.

Surely those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered, not these Angels with wicked faces who wanted to make a new world and who didn’t care whom they hurt to do it.  

You could, if you chose to, criticise the book I suppose; the plot is probably a little fantastic, Victoria’s escapades unlikely for a girl of her background, and there is the occasional mild racial stereotype. But these are tiny little things when set against the sweep of the story, the cleverness of the writing and the plot, and the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. Christie’s love for the area shines through, her sympathy for and empathy with the people and their way of life is evident, and her desire for a tolerant, kinder world is clear. We could do a lot worse nowadays to take that message on board; but in the meantime, if you want an enjoyable, entertaining thriller, set in an evocative lost landscape, you need look no further than “They Came to Baghdad” – wonderful book!

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

Launching the #1947 Club with a wonderful Agatha Christie revisit!

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1947-club-pink

Yes, today is the first day of our wonderful week of reading books from the year 1947 – part of a series cleverly thought up by my co-host Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book. So far we’ve covered books from 1924 and 1938, and had some fabulous reading experiences. However, 1947 looks to be a vintage year for publishing, and I’m starting off the week in style! I’ve also put up a separate page for 1947 and if you read or review anything from that year do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to include everyone!

I was personally really pleased to find out that Agatha Christie’s “The Labours of Hercules” was one of the books published in 1947, as I have happy memories of reading it as a teenager, and I thought it was definitely due a revisit. By the time of its publication, Christie had been a household name for decades as was Poirot himself; and this collection of linked short stories is presented under the conceit that Poirot will take on 12 cases mirroring the historical Labours of Hercules before he finally retires. Of course, we know now that the determined detective would carry on solving crimes until his creator’s death in the 1970s, but at the time the thought of Poirot retiring must have shocked his readers as much as the death of Sherlock Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls did!

My original copy from the 1970s - in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

My original copy from the 1970s – in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

There is a foreword where Poirot dines with an academic friend and laments he never studied the classics. It is this friend, Dr. Burton, who mentions in passing the classic Labours and laughingly refers to Poirot’s inappropriate forename, thereby triggering the whole concept of the book. The stories that follow are a wonderfully varied bunch, tied loosely to each Labour, and even if you have no classical knowledge (and I don’t!) they’re absolutely brilliant and immensely enjoyable.

So for example, “The Nemean Lion” has Poirot looking into the kidnapping of Pekinese dogs, an apparently trivial crime that turns out to have hidden repercussions. “The Lernaean Hydra” deals with murder and poison pen letters (the latter one of Christie’s regular tropes) in a small village. “The Stymphalean Birds” has fraud and potential blackmail, and warns of the dangers to foolish Englishmen who travel abroad without knowing any other languages! “The Cretan Bull” features hereditary madness, and “The Capture of Cerberus” reunites Poirot with Countess Vera Rossakoff in a post-War London setting. The latter was always one of my favourites, with the opening scenes of Poirot being jostled in the London Tube and encountering the Countess on a huge escalator permanently stuck in my mind. These are just some of the highlights; really, each of the varied stories is a little gem and I don’t want to pick favourites! Inspector Japp and Poirot’s valet Georges make an appearance or two, as does Miss Lemon, who is always a joy!

And Poirot ranges far and wide whilst undertaking his Labours, travelling all over the world and meeting a variety of different people, all the while using his ingenious methods of discovering the truth and dispensing his own kind of justice (as we see in many of his stories). There is a surprising amount of drug-taking featured (cocaine and the like, not just poisons being used for murders) and Christie has a wonderfully no-nonsense approach to life. In fact, it’s a delight to rediscover how much she used sly humour to dig at the rich and silly. There isn’t a titled lady with a Pekinese who gets off lightly, nor a pompous lord or businessman having an affair with a secretary who isn’t deflated or warned off. Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot are on the side of the governesses, companions and car mechanics, and it’s lovely. That’s not to say that the cases don’t deal with some richer people from the upper echelons – they do, which is proof that Christie can see good in all. Some of her descriptions are just priceless, like this one of a rather alarming country home:

Inside, it was what a house agent would have described as “fully furnished”. Cross-legged Buddhas leered down from convenient niches, brass Benares trays and tables encumbered the floor space. Processional elephants garnished the mantelpieces and more tortured brass work adorned the walls.

If I had to stand back and be truly honest, there *are* times when Christie rather stretches things to fit in with her concept; taking Poirot to the top of a Swiss mountain to deal with dangerous gangsters is perhaps – well, unexpected. But none of this detracts from reading Christie at the height of her powers, and the book is pure joy and entertainment. There are a couple of sly nods to Sherlock Holmes, as if to acknowledge the debt all Golden Age crime writers owed to Conan Doyle (particularly in a partnership structured like Poirot and Hastings), as well as mentions of Reggie Fortune and Sir Henry Merrivale, some of Poirot’s contemporaries.

Agatha Christie

So my first book for the 1947 Club has turned out to be a fabulous one and a real pleasure. I forget how much I love Christie when I leave a gap between books, but revisiting “The Labours of Hercules” has convinced me that when I have the time (retirement maybe!) I shall sit down and read the entirety of her output from start to finish in chronological order!

A rediscovered pleasure

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By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Middle Child is most definitely going to take the blame for this one! I was in the middle of preparing for the 1938 Club with a little stack of books for that, sitting alongside some review titles, when over the Easter break Middle Child returned a couple of Agatha Christies she’d borrowed from me. MC is nearly as big an Agatha fan as I am, mainly the Poirot stories, but I had loaned her a Tommy and Tuppence basically because I love them so much! And it was sitting on the side waiting to go back on the shelves, and I just picked it up and there you go – I had to read it!

pricking

BTPOMT is a later Christie, first published in 1968, and the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford we meet here have grown up a little since their original appearance as a couple of slightly dizzy characters in the 1920s. Middle aged or old (depending on your viewpoint), they have grown up children but are still looked after by the faithful Albert. The story opens with the pair visiting Tommy’s ancient aunt Ada in a rest home, and while Tommy is spending time with the aunt, Tuppence goes off and encounters another resident, Mrs. Lancaster. The latter suddenly comes out with the spooky question, “Was it your poor child?” She goes on to talk about the child being behind the fireplace, and Tuppence (and later Tommy when she tells him) comes to the conclusion that the old lady is just a bit batty. However, Tuppence being Tuppence is not quite satisfied…

Shortly afterwards, Aunt Ada dies, and when the Beresfords return to the home, Mrs. Lancaster has been mysteriously swept off by a relative, and neither of them can be traced. Tuppence is convinced there is something wrong – she has had a feeling, sort of like “the pricking of her thumbs” where she’s convinced something wicked is happening. Tommy, prosaic as ever, is less convinced and so while he’s off at a conference Tuppence begins investigating. Pivotal to the mystery is a painting of a house given by Mrs. Lancaster to Aunt Ada, and Tuppence sets off to track the house down. This action sets in place the rest of the story which involves murder, madness, kidnap, crime gangs, mistaken identity and all sorts of general mayhem. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because that might spoil it!

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence int he 1980s

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the 1980s

The received wisdom is that later Christie is not so good, and certainly her last Tommy and Tuppence book “Postern of Fate” comes in for a lot of criticism. However, I just loved this one! It’s absolutely ages since I read it, but it felt wonderful to be back in the world of the Beresfords – although Christie only wrote a few titles featuring them, I do love them. And this is a very clever book, with that wonderful element I always like in Christie of investigating things that happened in the past. It’s a trope she used often and well, and I always admire what she does with it. There’s also a real feeling of menace in some of the characters, and although you suspect the heroes will come out well in the end, there’s always a suspenseful point in the story where you wonder if they won’t.

christie

I guess BTPOMT might be more of a thriller than a straight murder mystery, and certainly Tommy and Tuppence’s novels veer more towards spies than ordinary detecting. That doesn’t make it any less good because I’m one of those who’s of the opinion that substandard Christie is better than anybody else’s best! If I had to make any criticism it would be perhaps that Christie does over-egg the pudding a little when it comes to plotlines; there are a *lot* of different strands, many of which are red herrings, and she manages to pull them all together at the end – though I did wonder if she needed quite so many! But the book is full of twists and turns, absolutely gripping and has a wonderful denouement that I had fortunately forgotten and so took me by surprise – lovely!

In an ideal world with infinite reading time I would sit down and read everything Agatha Christie wrote in chronological order and have the most wonderful time. As it is, I really must make a habit of going back to her books more often – there’s nothing more comforting and satisfying than a Christie when you want classic crime!

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