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The Bannister GirlsHow to review a book that skirts the line between being a ”good bad” book and simply a “bad bad” book?  Most of my reading falls into the good bad category: books that are not going to win prizes for their experimental structure or complex themes but which, as Orwell wrote, remain “readable when more serious productions have perished.”  The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, originally published in 1991 and recently reissued as an e-book by Bloomsbury Reader, aspires to be a good bad book; it doesn’t quite get there but it is a fun, more than slightly soapy historical romance.

Set during the First World War, The Bannister Girls follows the members of the Bannister family from 1915 to 1918, focusing in particular on Angel, the youngest daughter.  The novel opens with Angel meeting a young French pilot currently on leave in London.  Within a few hours, she has abandoned the rigid social rules her mother tried so hard to instil in her three daughters, finding herself with him first at a nightclub and then at a hotel.  Their relationship builds from that day forward and is a dominant feature of the story…which would have been more enjoyable if either Angel or Jacques had been remotely interesting.  Angel becomes a far more interesting person when she’s interacting with her sisters (though, since she spends most of the war nursing in France, that’s rare) or with her father.

The eldest sister, Louise, is largely absent from the story, with other characters providing updates on her life while the middle sister, Ellen, is still seen all too rarely for my tastes.  Ellen is a passionate and idealistic young woman, attracted to controversial social issues: she begins the book as a vocal supporter of women’s rights and, after a German shopkeeper is murdered in the village near the Bannister’s country home, begins advocating for the rights of foreign-born residents.  But before too long, the war does intrude on her causes and she takes up work at one of the neighbouring farms, becoming even closer friends with the farmer there, having initially befriended him while protesting.  Unlike Angel, Ellen’s love life is actually interesting: she makes a bit of a muddle of her relationship with her farmer and her embarrassment at having confused attraction and love felt more real than most of the emotions in this book.  Her struggles are less dramatic than Angel’s but more impactful for that reason.

While I would have preferred more of a focus on Ellen and cheered if any attention at all had been given to Louise, I must say that Saunders does do an excellent job of describing the hospital and nursing conditions in France, where Angel spends most of the novel working.  This partially makes up for the general flatness of the characters and the ridiculously overdramatic twists in Angel and Jacques’ love story.  For all my complaining, I did have fun reading this.  I may not remember it a month from now, but I also couldn’t put it down when I was reading.

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Doctor ThorneThis review is a definite case of better late than never: I read Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope at the end of April 2012.  I loved it but, busy with my reviews for A Century of Books, this one fell through the cracks.  Now, almost a year after finishing it, here is that long-awaited review.  Thank goodness I still keep up my reading journals – without the notes I made while reading this would certainly not have been possible!

In Doctor Thorne, we move to a new corner of Barsetshire, away from the cathedral town that hosted the action of The Warden and Barchester Towers to the more rural setting of Greshamsbury, a village presided over by the popular squire, Mr Francis Gresham.  As the novel begins, the family and all its friends are celebrating the coming of age of the squire’s only son, Frank.  Frank is handsome and cheerful, honest and steadfast – a man any father (or author) can be proud of.  He also fancies himself in love with Mary Thorne, the charming, beloved niece of the local doctor, who has grown up alongside Frank and his sisters.  Though Dr Thorne is the novel’s real hero, Trollope generously allows – in one of his very charming authorial asides – that some readers might prefer Frank:

He would have been the hero of our tale had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trails and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.  Those who don’t approve of a middle-aged bachelor country doctor as a hero, may take the heir to Greshamsbury in his stead, and call the book, if it so please them, ‘The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the Younger.’

When Frank declares himself, Mary Thorne rebuffs his advances.  Though she loves him (far more, in fact, than he loves her at this point) she has just discovered that she is illegitimate.  It is not so much that she worries about his family’s disapproval but that she, very nobly and naïvely, does not want to lower her lover, who is so proud of his family’s pedigree.

When Lady Arabella Gresham discovers her son’s interest in Mary Thorne, she is horrified.  The present squire, good fellow though he is, has not managed the estate well.  Land has been sold off and the rest mortgaged.  While snobbishness may demand young Frank choose a wife of good stock, practicality demands he choose an heiress.  Mary is neither and so Frank is, after being firmly reminded that “there is no road to wealth so easy and respectable as that of matrimony”, sent off in pursuit of the marvellous Miss Dunstable, who is possession of a very large fortune and an excellent sense of humour.  Miss Dunstable is some years older than Frank and, after easily discouraging his half-hearted attempts at lovemaking, becomes his staunch supporter in his pursuit of Mary Thorne.

The book chronicles more than two years in the lives of its characters, seeing Frank and Mary through from the age of twenty-one to twenty-three; a period which sees them both mature – considerably in Frank’s case.  One of the greatest delights of Trollope’s writing is how weak his male characters can be, in the best possible way.  Framley Parsonage, the next book in the Barsetshire Chronicles, is an even better example of this but both Doctor Throne and Frank struggle in the most credible manner with the difficult choices lain before them.  In the doctor’s case, the ethical crisis he faces would test most men.  For Frank, much of his struggle has to do with his youth.  If he had not come under the excellent influence of Miss Dunstable, he might have allowed himself to be persuaded into changing his mind about Mary before he was mature enough to understand the full consequences of his actions and the worth of the woman he was rejecting.  However, with time on his side, he ages into himself and is able to take full control of actions as the book progresses:

Frank had become legally of age, legally a man, when he was twenty-one.  Nature, it seems, had postponed the ceremony till he was twenty-two.  Nature often does postpone the ceremony even to a much later age; – sometimes, altogether forgets to accomplish it.

I love everything about this book.  I’ve read the first four Barsetshire books now and there is no question that this is my favourite.  Doctor Thorne is as worthy a hero as anyone could hope for but, really, all of the characters are wonderful.  I particularly enjoyed every scene involving the female members of the Gresham family.  Lady Arabella is no friend of Doctor Thorne’s (and therefore she is no friend of the reader’s) but, despite her best efforts, she can never seem to get the best of him: “it was not easy to be condescending to the doctor: she had been trying all her life, and had never succeeded.”  Her frustrated conversations with her willful children were also perfection, especially the back-chat she received from the daughter who was closest to Mary.  Anyone who thinks Victorian novels or even just Victorians themselves are stuffy should read Trollope to be reminded of how very little people change. 

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The Happy PrisonerAfter my first very successful encounter with Bloomsbury Reader (Another Part of the Wood), I quickly downloaded another of their e-books from my library.  First published in 1946, The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens is another gem, an intelligent but light character-driven novel about a wounded soldier trying his best to council his family members through their various crises.

The war is over but nothing has gone back to normal for Oliver North: he is lying in bed in his mother’s house, waiting for his leg to heal after the bottom half was amputated and for his weak heart to get stronger, it having been damaged by shrapnel in the same attack that damaged his leg.  Unable to move from the main floor room where his bed is set up, Oliver watches his family’s lives go on around him, happily doing his best to steer them when they come to him for guidance:

How wise Oliver felt lying here, knowing he could run people’s lives better than they could themselves.  He had visions of himself as the oracle and influence of the household, but it was difficult to be either an oracle or an influence when people kept going away and you could not get up and follow them and make them listen.

Elder sister Violet, horse faced and happier in pants than skirts, finds herself with an unexpected chance at romance.  Younger sister Heather, mother of two small children, has been struggling for years as a single parent, ever since her husband was captured as a POW in Asia.  Now that he has returned from the East, she is struggling to readjust to the man she once adored but now barely knows.  Others bustle in and out of Oliver’s room – a young cousin, an old girlfriend, his brothers-in-law, and, of course, his doting mother – everyone telling calm, steady Oliver their troubles.  Everyone, that is, but Elizabeth, Oliver’s invaluable but reserved nurse.

What a wonderful discovery this was!  I adored my first encounter with Dickens (Mariana) but since then had begun to wonder if she was for me, having had mixed reactions to the books I had read since then.  While I don’t particularly enjoy her much-admired memoirs (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc), I really do enjoy her fiction.  Dickens’ writing is simple but admirably so.  She writes clearly and with great humour and, something I am coming to appreciate more and more, has complete control over the pacing of the story.  It never drags or rushes but proceeds at exactly the right rate towards the happy ending.  Another great offering from Bloomsbury Reader!

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Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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My excitement about having more time to blog while on vacation obviously hasn’t translated into actual blogging.  I should have anticipated this since, as always, Claire in holiday-mode is busier than Claire in work-mode.  But it has been a lovely break, if not a restful one.  The weather has been perfect, we’ve just had a fabulous party for my parents’ 35th wedding anniversary, and I have been reading like a fiend.  So far, unemployment is treating me very well.

I have been feeling guilty over the past few weeks for not blogging about the three books in Phillip Rock’s Greville Family Saga but just could not work up the enthusiasm to do so in detail.  The books, originally published in the late seventies and early eighties, have recently been reissued and are being marketed on the strength of their similarities to Downton Abbey.  The first book, The Passing Bells, opens in the summer of 1914 and follows the characters through the first half of the war.  Circles of Time picks up a few years later, looking at the impact of the war in both England and Germany, and the trilogy concludes in A Future Arrived, which jumps forward to the Second World War.

The Passing BellsI read The Passing Bells countless times as a teenager and still love it.  It is just as soapy as I remembered but it is great fun.  The writing is not brilliant and it feels very much of its time but it is an entertaining story and Rock is excellent at incorporating historical events into the story.  That is the real issue with the first book: the events and the characters’ experiences are generally better described than the characters themselves.   But Rock does manage to fit a lot of different perspectives in to this relatively short book, between the people at home, the frontline nurses, the career soldier who finds himself enraged by the waste of human life, the young romantic who goes mad after his experiences in France, and, most importantly, the young American journalist who records everything in clear-sighted journal entries that are the highlight of this volume.

circles-of-timeCircles of Time, perhaps because it doesn’t have any big historical events to structure itself around, is a much less eventful book and focuses more the personal lives of the characters from the first book.  It is a fine, entertaining story but the structure is a little uneven and I can’t quite put my finger on why that is.  The book takes a serious turn in the second half when Martin Rilke, the Greville’s American cousin, now a famous journalist, visits his Rilke cousins in Germany and witnesses firsthand the absurdities of the Weimar Republic (from mad hedonism in Berlin nightclubs to assassinations in the streets) and the beginnings of the Nazi party in Bavaria.

A Future ArrivedThe third book, A Future Arrived, is a mess.  Honestly, I wouldn’t even recommend reading it.  The structural problems that plagued the first two books completely finish this one off, and the situation is not helped by the introduction of younger characters who are either poorly developed or second-rate copies of their elders.  It is a messy, unsatisfying book that lacks the historical detail that redeemed the flaws of the earlier novels.  Just read the first two books and forget there is a third one.

Sorcery and CeceliaAs for other books, I enjoyed Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer but am afraid I don’t have all that much to say about it.  It is an epistolary Regency-era fantasy novel – and isn’t that a mouthful?  It is the kind of fantasy I like the least – magic has never done it for me – so I think I enjoyed it less than other reader might have but both main characters (Kate and Cecelia) are great and the book is really very fun.  There are two more books in the series and I’ve already got one of them loaded on to my Kobo.

More Baths Less TalkingMore Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby, which I read just before Sorcery and Cecelia, is a collection of Hornby’s monthly columns for the Believer about his reading choices and I got some great reading recommendations from it.  I love Hornby’s picks – he mentions many books I have already read or which are already on my TBR list – but, ultimately, he is still Hornby and I still just don’t like him all that much.  I don’t dislike him, but I have very little in common with him and don’t find his viewpoint particularly engaging or his style particularly interesting.  It is entirely a matter of taste.  There are three other volumes of earlier columns that I will probably track down one day but I’m not going to rush out to grab them.

I have some more exciting books to review soon, ones that I want to do justice to with dedicated posts – an excellent Monica Dickens novel, a lacklustre Persephone, and two fabulous Georgette Heyers among them – but for now I’m headed back to the pool.  Work, work, work!

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I can’t overstate how immensely useful Elizabeth von Arnim has been for one of the trickiest decades of A Century of Books, the 1900s.  She has been one of my favourite authors for ages but all of the books I’ve read this year for the project were new to me: The Benefactress (1901), The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight (1905), Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907), and now The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen (1904) and The Caravaners (1909).

adventuresofelizabethLike all of the Elizabeth books, The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen is exactly what you would expect it to be based on the title (much like Elizabeth and Her German Garden is about Elizabeth’s garden in Germany or The Solitary Summer is about, surprise, a summer spent in solitude).  Elizabeth, accompanied by her invaluable maid Gertrud, has decided to take a holiday to the German island of Rügen, leaving her husband and children behind.  Unencumbered by dependents, she is free to be the Elizabeth who indulges in long walks and light meals, able to think about the beauties of nature rather than the demands of her family.

But, of course, Elizabeth does not find the peace she had dreamt of.  Though her trip is a short one – only eleven days – she finds herself kept quite busy between her new acquaintances and her old ones.  The Harvey-Brownes, an English mother and son, she can just about handle, but an unexpected encounter with her unconventional cousin Charlotte proves a bit more frustrating.  A strident feminist and deeply annoying woman, Charlotte has abandoned her husband (an aged professor) and now lives and lectures in England.  Elizabeth cannot agree with her cousin’s extreme views, especially when Charlotte begins criticizing Elizabeth’s life, with her garden and babies.  When the professor appears, an irritatingly condescending and benignly amorous septuagenarian who has not seen his wife in more than a year, things get even more complicated.  His wife wants nothing to do with him while the Harvey-Brownes, great admirers of his work, won’t leave him alone.

As much as I enjoy Elizabeth’s (almost) solitary wanderings and musing on her surroundings, the book is funniest when she is the company of others.  Able to observe and comment on the Harvey-Brownes, Charlotte, and the Professor, we see once again that wit that makes von Arnim’s books so delightful.  The laughs are more gentle than in her other books and it did take me a while to ease into the story but it was still a solidly enjoyable read, just not the best example of von Arnim’s powers.

The CaravanersLike The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rügen, The Caravaners is also written in the form of a travel journal although this time the travels are in England and the author, instead of the delightful Elizabeth, is one of the most obnoxious characters von Arnim ever created.

When Baron Otto Von Ottringe and his wife Edelgard embark on a caravanning holiday in Southern England, neither they nor they companions know what they are getting themselves in to.  The indignities of life on the road are one thing – the economies of caravanning do not make up for the inconveniences, Otto quickly realises – but it is Otto’s interactions with his fellow travellers that truly sour the trip for everyone.  Except Otto, our pompous, chauvinistic, lazy narrator, has no idea.  What he does notice is how his wife rebels against his authority once they start out, talking back to him, dressing in the more modern style of their travel companions, and generally not behaving at all in the way of a proper German wife.  And goodness knows Otto has plenty to say on how a good German wife should behave:

…older and married women must take care to be at all times quiet.  Ejaculations of a poetic or ecstatic nature should not, as a rule, pass their lips.  They may ejaculate perhaps over a young baby (if it is their own) but that is the one exception; and there is a good reason for this one, the possession of a young baby implying as a general rule a corresponding youth in its mother.  I do not think however that it is nice when a woman ejaculates over, say, her tenth young baby.  The baby of course will still be sufficiently young for it is a fresh one, but it is not a fresh mother, and by that time she should have stiffened into stolidity, and apart from the hours devoted to instructing her servant, silence.  Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all.  Who want to hear her?  All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything.  Surely this is not much to ask.

Otto is awful.  I completely recognize that.  Like those forced to travel with him, I would resent and then avoid him at all costs.  He has no manners, mistreating everyone he views as below his level, and views his wife as a being who neither requires nor desires his affection or respect.  While his courtly manners are deployed on the other women of his party, Edelgard is ignored: No woman (except of course my wife) shall ever be able to say I have not behaved to her as a gentleman should.  Otto is the ultimate portrait of the pompous, poorly educated, undiscerning, war-mongering and overbearing German man so often to be found in von Arnim’s books.  It is sharply but almost too viciously done and by the end I was more upset with von Arnim than I was with Otto.

This kind of humour, where the narrator unknowingly makes himself the object of ridicule, fills me with pity.  Once his companions’ contempt for him became clear, and Otto’s obliviousness remained intact, I spent the rest of the book blushing in embarrassment for him, even as his blunders gave them more and more reasons to avoid his company.  There was something very cruel about the scene at the dance, where everyone darted away as soon as Otto approached.  I know how and why I am supposed to find it amusing, I just don’t.  There is enough sense about Otto – he is particularly sympathetic when pointing out the absurdities of travelling by caravan and how ill-suited he and his upper-class companions are to roughing it – that he cannot be entirely dismissed as a fool.

It is a very humourous book and another wonderful example of von Arnim’s versatility but, for me, it was too uncomfortably cruel to really enjoy.

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Reading A.A. Milne’s The Day’s Play and Once a Week, both collections of pieces he wrote for Punch during the 1900s and 1910s,  this year has reminded me how much I enjoy good humourous writing.  The obvious next step was to reacquaint myself with one of my very favourite humourists and so I picked up Behind the Beyond by Stephen Leacock.

It was famously said that during the height of his fame more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town remains popular a hundred years after its initial publication but, though some of his other works remain in print, they are sadly less known.  Behind the Beyond came out in 1913 but the pieces in it are just as funny today as they were then.

The book begins with the title piece, a fantastic parody of a night at the theatre, making fun of both the play itself (here an all-too plausible melodrama, about an intergenerational love triangle with a dying heroine, the quality of which varies dramatically as the acts progress) and the audience’s reaction to it.  It is the audience that makes this piece still so funny because, honestly, people never change:

‘Monsieur Harding?’ he says.

‘Oui.’

‘Bon!  Une lettre.’

‘Merci, monsieur.’ He goes out.  The audience feel a thrill of pride at having learned French and being able to follow the intense realism of this dialogue.

All of the stories are little bits of nonsense but they are well-written nonsense, the kind of inconsequential but amusing writing that there used to be a huge market for in the popular magazines and newspapers of the day but, alas!, no longer.  Leacock muses on, among other things, visits to the dentist and barber, an encounter with a genial hustler on a train and, at length, the tourist experience in Paris.  I loved “Making a Magazine”, a satirical piece about a struggling author who dreamt he was the editor of popular magazine, the kind of man who had tortured and disappointed him so many times in his waking life:

“I came to say, sir,” the secretary went on, “that there’s a person downstairs waiting to see you.”

My manner changed at once.

“Is he a gentleman or a contributor?” I asked.

“He doesn’t look exactly like a gentleman.”

“Very good,” I said. “He’s a contributor for sure. Tell him to wait. Ask the caretaker to lock him in the coal cellar, and kindly slip out and see if there’s a policeman on the beat in case I need him.”

“Very good, sir,” said the secretary.

I waited for about an hour, wrote a few editorials advocating the rights of the people, smoked some Turkish cigarettes, drank a glass of sherry, and ate part of an anchovy sandwich.

Then I rang the bell. “Bring that man here,” I said.

I found it particularly interesting to read this after having read so much Milne this year because the overlap is so clear.  It is easy to distinguish between the two author’s styles – Milne would always be more aggressive, trying to fit in more laughs per line, though not always successfully – but their topics are very similar and they are equally playful in employing various rhetorical devices for comic effect.  What I do really do notice when comparing Milne’s youthful writings with Leacock’s more mature efforts (Leacock was 14 years older than Milne) from the same period is the polish.  Leacock’s work feels finished in a way Milne’s, however delightfully entertaining I may find it, doesn’t.  Every story in this collection is good.  Yes, some stand out but they are all amusing and, more importantly, the humour is sustained through each story, never petering out after a strong start or coming on strong after a weak beginning.  Leacock’s writing feels refined, like the art that it was, and you can easily understand why he was one of the leading humourists of the day.

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