Down and Out, Heartbroken

I don’t like to get political on this blog but after the news this morning I just wanted to briefly mention that I am heartbroken. I love Europe. I love it’s people. I love the fact I have grown up all my life (as someone born after joining the EU) calling myself European, far more than I have British probably. So I am devastated that fear, lies and hatred have won.


The world seems all out of kilter, shouldn’t we be fighting the madness together rather than letting it win? I’m for inclusion, as all my friends and family are. So I feel utterly saddened that so many people will be looking at my country and thinking we aren’t and that we don’t want to be. That is all.

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The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

In my last review I talked about the importance of books that make you face, head on, some of the awful things that are going on in the world, the power of fiction being able to send you into the heads of those you wouldn’t choose to be for various reasons. Today I want to talk to you about the supreme power at the opposite end of the spectrum that fiction can have, the ability to take you away to another place, time and world wrapped in escapism and joy that is one of the main reasons that we read. Sarah Perry’s wonderful second novel, The Essex Serpent, is just such a book and one which (as easily one of my favourite books of the year so far) I will be urging you all to go and escape with it as soon as you can.

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Serpents Tail, 2016, hardback, fiction, 419 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he is blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot merely be the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.
In the darkness he grows afraid. There is something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction.

The small close knit town of Aldwinter is in shock, as it seems that the Essex Serpent has returned after over 200 years when it last infamously terrorised the area. One of the townsmen has been found dead, with a petrified look upon his face, and soon enough fear is running rife through the area as cattle and people start to be reported as missing. This is not good news for William Ransom, the local rector, who refuses to believe (or cannot believe) that such a thing exists and refuses to name it as anything other than ‘the Trouble’, yet his congregation are afraid and starting to question his preaching further unsettling the town.

Further afield though nothing could be more exciting, or indeed more needed, for recently widowed Cora Seaborne than a possible adventure. With a fascination for fossils and palaeontology from the moment she hears of the ‘Strange News Out of Essex’ (which is also the name of the first part of the book, each part gets a wonderfully tempting title in a delicious nod to the Victorian sensation novels of the day) she sets off in search of it and any other prehistoric hints in the marshes and estuaries. This being bad news for Dr Luke Garrett, who loves Cora and her rousing spirit and believes that after her grieving there might be a chance for love. But who could second guess such a woman?

‘I daresay you have heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters.

Cora Seaborne is one of Sarah Perry’s many masterstrokes within The Essex Serpent. It is hard to create a women of heightened independence in the Victorian period, ironic seeing as who the period was named after, who is believable. More often than not you have to go for the cheeky buxom wench like Nancy in Oliver Twist or some monstrous matriarch. However Cora is a widow which both gives her the means to have the independence that she desires yet at what cost? For as we read on behind Cora’s seemingly excitable and joyful exterior there is a vulnerable side and a darker story hidden away. I loved this because it adds layers to her as a character and also to the plot with an additional mystery. Not many authors can pull this off.

Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’  

Yet a novel about an independent woman in the Victorian era would almost be too easy for our author, which is one of the things I loved about its predecessor. Perry pushes the boundaries of what we expect, she is all about the deeper layers, rather like the estuaries we visit in the story, and the cheeky winks and nods in this book. Why simply have a mysterious tale of a possible monster and the rector and female amateur scientist who try to hunt it down, with a hint of potential illicit romance and shenanigans thrown in for good measure (though that is a perfect book right there) when you can do more? Why not throw in the question of platonic love vs. sexual attraction and see what can be weaved and unravelled out of that?

Then, if you’re in the mood which Perry clearly was, why not look at other things going on in society then that are still conundrums now. Questions about feminism, class, science vs. religion? Sarah Perry hasn’t just made Cora’s love interests be a rector and a doctor for your reading pleasure, although it adds to it hugely so of course she has, there is more going on here. In doing so certain questions and dynamics make the book brim all the further. Why is it that Luke Garrett is so desperate to mend physical broken hearts after all? Why will William not be ruled by his head or his heart? These all lead off to a wonderful dark subplots that I won’t spoil but I bloody loved.

I also mentioned those lovely winks and nods didn’t I? Well these are further proof of what a superb mind can use to create such a superb book. In the 1890’s sensation novels were all the rage and Sarah Perry takes these wonderful books and pays homage to them and also plays with them. She takes many of the standard glorious Gothic tropes and waves at them joyously. Possible monsters in eerie boggy marshes (which are written so atmospherically) and bodies petrified to death take you to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The Woman in White, and indeed the Woman in Black, are winked at with a Woman in Blue – which in the authors notes are also a nod to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets which made me want to squeeze Sarah to bits with unbridled love and may get me arrested or a restraining order. Servants clearly smitten with their mistresses give a hint of Rebecca. Okay, I know that some of those are the wrong era but two are gothic and some of my favourites. Rather like her writing prose in contemporary English rather than of the period these all add to the atmosphere and yet keep it fresh and different.

She also flip reverses (if any of you now have that Blazin’ Squad hit single in your head I now love you) many of these tropes on their head. When is the rector ever a sex object or the rich widow doing anything but being a bitch or scheming to marry and kill off another husband, for example? Sarah Perry also uses some wonderful knowing hindsight between the reader and herself with them. A prime example is Cora’s son who everyone thinks is just a bit sinister and odd, who we all see as clearly being autistic and misunderstood – well I thought so. Sarah is enjoying writing this book as much as you are reading it and there is a communication going on between author and reader that is rare and wonderful when it happens. Suffice to say all these additional layers, elements and nods are what takes The Essex Serpent from being a brilliant book to being a stand out fantastic book. Goodness me I loved it. Can you tell?

I don’t normally advice that you judge a book by its cover; I will make an exception in the case of The Essex Serpent, for its insides are as wonderful as its outsides. It is a beautifully and intrinsically crafted and tempts, beguiles and hooks its readers into a vivid and ever so sensational and gothic world. I think it is a wonder. It is a ripping great yarn and also so much more. Delicious. As I said at the beginning Sarah Perry has written a novel which has been one of the highlights of my reading year and after the wonders of this and After Me Comes the Flood I simply cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Review, Sarah Perry, Serpent's Tail

Independent Bookshop Week 2016 (And The Chance To Win A Book From One) #IBW2016

To turn away from all the dreadful news of late, lets head towards something that all of us book lovers, erm, love. Independent Bookshops. For today in the UK it is Independent Bookshop Week 2016, where e celebrate the wonderful independent bookshops up and down the country. So I thought that we could celebrate it here on the blog too. I have mentioned on many an occasion how much bookshops mean to me now and have meant to me over the years and how important I think they are in the world, so any chance to celebrate them is a good thing. I have found some of my favourite books in them, had wonderful conversations in them (with booksellers, friends, family and the occasional random stranger or two, sometimes with tea and cake) and have many many happy memories of my time in them. In fact my favourite picture of myself and Granny Savidge, who I miss going bookshopping with and chatting about books to dreadfully) was taken in my favourite independent, Scarthin Books.

Awww, the memories and the laughter… and the occasional string disagreement on an author or book. It was as much a treat going book shopping with my Gran in my early thirties as it was in my early years, just a slight shift of focus in the books I was looking at and hopefully the conversation. I have waxed lyrical about the bookshops I love and the books I have found in them in the YouTube (I know so modern) video below, if you are on YouTube do give this tag a whirl and let me know once you have or if you have already.

I won’t be heading to a bookshop today, as The Beard has gone away from a weekend working and so I am allowing myself a weekend in having a readathon by myself BUT you can be sure I will heading to some when I am in London later in the week. In fact myself and the lovely Jen Campbell are going to do lunch and Libreria (a bookshop I have been very intrigued by and not been to yet) which has lead my to an idea… If you answer the following questions by the end of Wednesday the 22nd of June I will choose one of you at random and buy you a book in Libreria based on your answers. I may even get you a tote bag if they do them. So the questions are…

a) What is your favourite bookshop. b) What is the last amazing book you were recommended or found browsing in a bookshop? c) What is your favourite book of all time?

Based on those I will try and find whoever wins a brilliant book and send it to you anywhere in the world? How does that sound? Right, I am off to stick my nose back in a brilliant book. Good luck.

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Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas

I have ummed and ahhed for quite some time about so much this week I feel a bit worn out. The news from Orlando has been horrific and I didn’t know if I should write anything and then every time I tried to it felt slightly trite, preachy or just wrong.  Yet to say nothing as a member of the LGBT community also felt wrong. I then realised that a book I had been planning on sharing my thoughts on, Christos Tsiolkas’ Merciless Gods, unintentionally embodies all my feelings about everything that is going on in the world right now (including the awful murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in the UK today) that feels bonkers, saddening, anger inducing, hypo critic, dark, bigoted and wicked with the world. It looks at them and unflinchingly points out how vile and stupid these views are; how awful people can be and asks us to reflect and learn from that. In doing so it discusses things that are not for the faint hearted and this review will be too, you have been warned.

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Atlantic Books, 2015, paperback, short stories, 330 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

My mother is best known for giving blow jobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties. She said Best’s penis was thicker, the bigger one, but that McCartney was the more beautiful. ‘Paul’s cock was elegant,’ she liked to say.

I did pre-warn you that Christos Tsiolkas’ writing can be pretty full on, that taken from the story The Hair of the Dog, so you can’t be forgiven for being shocked. Not that you would be that shocked if you have read any of his novels for which this is often part of the course. You can be forgiven for giggling though because, as is the case with many of the stories within Merciless Gods, the can be titillating but there is always a much darker and more daunting stink in the tail of the tale, quite literally.

In the fifteen tales that form Merciless Gods we look at revenge, homophobia, racism, old age, family feuds, love as it blossoms, love turning sour, death, grief, power, weakness and so much more. We also look at how men respond around other men, which I could write about at some length however Tsiolkas’ has his most heightened power when he is talking about injustice, prejudice or bigotry. One of the stories that depicts this most powerfully is in Sticks, Stones; where a mother hears her own son say something horrific to a girl in his school year who has learning disabilities. The shame, disgust and rage that flow within her at her own son and his words surprise her and then almost take control of her.

In fact rage, and what we do with that emotion, is quite common in these stories from moments like that to seemingly insignificant arguments between a couple holidaying in NYC, in the aptly titled Tourists, as they wander around a gallery/museum which lingers and festers into something much greater. Tsiolkas wants to try and understand fear and rage and why they cause people to act in some of the ways they do (which reminds me of Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, another fantastic and important book propelled by fury) from the stupid to the utterly contemptible.

The title tale of the collection looks at this in a very clever way. In Merciless Gods a group of friends after a night of solid drinking decide to play a game. Instead of truth or dare this group of friends decide to share their best revenge stories, leading to a dreadful case of competition but also revealing some of the more sinister sides of the people that the others think they know, one becoming so shocking and awful (and described so gleefully) the group can never be the same again. A no holds barred look at how unhealthy revenge and grudges can be, which is also looked at in The Disco at the End of Communism where a brother realises to late he should have forgiven and forgotten much sooner than he did.

‘I’m really sorry for your loss.’
It was the expected phrase, it came from a stranger, but she said it with unforced sincerity and they were the first words since he’d heard of Leo’s death that brought home the finality of the event. His brother was no more. From now on there would only be past.

Before I make this all sound too morbid or relentless (I would recommend reading this collection a tale at a time every so often) there is lightness in here too. Saturn Return is a wonderful story of acceptance and embracing difference between a gay man and his father, the latter who is at the end of his life. See, that sounds really sad but it is so full of hope and beautiful you’ll be weeping for both reasons. That said Tsiolkas isn’t here to bring unadulterated joy to your life, you can get some hope and the occasional giggle (appropriate or not) from the text but there is a statement and a point to me made. You have a tale like Saturn Return and then you go to the opposite end of the spectrum again with Jessica Lange in Frances which looks at the terrible ways in which internal homophobia can eat away at someone who is themselves gay. This also leads to the homophobia in general, several of these tales look at that yet one particular story in this collection embodies it and thoroughly whacks you with the impact of it on both parties.

The story that has stayed with me for quite some time and now seems all the more pertinent is Porn #1, which is the first in three stories which feature porn in some way, often opposing the message in the previous one which I found fascinating. Anyway. In this story, after the death of her estranged son, a mother discovers that he starred in gay porn. This creates a huge set of dilemmas for her. There is the fact she wants to see her son alive again, admittedly in a weird way. There is the fact that she cannot believe that her son would really do this. Then there is the bigger part of it, the internalised homophobia within herself; the stereotypes she has of gay men and how it conflicts with the love of a child she gave birth to. Potent, complicated and thought provoking indeed.

Why does this feel so pertinent with regards to Orlando? No I do not think this has happened since and no I am not saying that any of those sadly lost in such a tragedy had homophobic parents. To me the mother symbolises both society and some thoughts towards LGBT people, after all this was a homophobic attack (as well as an act of terrorism, I don’t want to get into the debate on this one – suffice to say I believe an act of terrorism is anything that creates terror and fear in people which this has) and the root of homophobia is, somewhat ironically, the fear of the unknown or the different. It’s all about the sex bit really and the love bit which incites so much hate and I think this one paragraph looks at this with unflinching brilliance. I hope you would agree?

When she returned to her armchair, the same monotonous exertions were taking place. Her disgust had disappeared. She had expected that she would find the images foul, not necessarily because they were pornographic, but because they depicted sex between men. Yes, the actors had seemed effeminate and ridiculous when they were kissing or performing oral sex on one another. But now that the older man was sodomising the younger one, frowning in concentration as he pounded away at the prostrate body spread over the desk, it seemed all too familiar. It was shockingly normal.

I think I will end on that note. I know I haven’t spoken about all of the fifteen stories; I just wanted to concentrate on some in light of what has been happening. Suffice to say that Merciless Gods is a collection designed to unsettle you with its overall reality in some way in each and every story. Sometimes we need fiction like this. Stories and books that rattle and shake us, shocking us out of our pacificity and make us act. Not to the extremity of inciting hate, which is kind of the butt of the jokes in the story, but to stand up to hatred, embrace what is different and try to understand and welcome it. That is what the power of amazing fiction can do, often all the more so when it is uncomfortable and confronting. Thank goodness then for authors like Christos Tsiolkas who want to shake us out of our reading routines now and again, forcing us to look at what’s going on rather than escaping from it through the power of such concentrated prose.

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Filed under Atlantic Books, Books of 2016, Christos Tsiolkas, Review, Short Stories

Other People’s Bookshelves #78 – Christina Philippou

Hello and welcome to the latest in Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the perfectly natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in in the south coast of the UK, in a place not far from Southsea where I used to live, to join Christina Philippou, whose blog you can find here, and have a nosey through her bookshelves. There is, as always with these lovely folks, quite the spread on so let’s all grab a cuppa/glass of something and a nibble of something before settling down to get to know Christina and her bookshelves better, and then I am off for a wander around my old haunts. But first, over to Christina…

I’m an ex-forensic accountant, now university lecturer, and am also a book blogger and fiction author. When not working, reading, or writing, I can normally be found engaging in sport or undertaking some form of nature appreciation with my family. I have three passports to go with my three children, but I’m not a spy.

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Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

Books to be read, work-related books, and REALLY good books go onto our shelves, although that’s two people’s (rather different) taste in books, so there’re a few that I wouldn’t keep (despite having read) that remain on our shelves. Every year we do a ‘clear-out’ and donate ‘cast-offs’ to our local library.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

Shelves are organised by genre: crime, romantic/ feel-good, campus lit, literary fiction, classics, Greek literature, travel literature (local authors from countries we have travelled to), other fiction, sport, popular science, history, general non-fiction… The shelves that don’t get culled are the travel guides ones – they just grow and have now taken over most of the top of the large bookshelf.

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What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac – money well spent and yes, still on my bookshelf!

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I used to be more eclectic in my reading tastes but I now read most things (embarrassing or not) and, as I file all my books by category, my guilty pleasures are on show for all our visitors to see…

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There’s two: My mum’s copy of ‘The Book of Nonsense’, which is a collection of poems, stories and rhymes for children, which I absolutely adored and was inspired by as a child, and my copy of Στα ψέματα παίζαμε (loosely translating as ‘We played at Lies’), an exquisitely written novel tracing backwards from the present the exploits of five school friends, in snapshots, every World Cup, and is not only unavailable in English, but is also now out of print in Greek as well.

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What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Brideshead Revisited always held a certain fascination for me, and was influential in shaping a lot of my reading when I was younger (as well as some of my writing). A different copy now resides on my shelves.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

Definitely buy keepers. I am lucky enough to get quite a few review e-copies, and I also download a lot of books, but anything that hits that special 5* space gets bought in paper copy.

What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

Death in Profile by Guy Fraser-Sampson and Night Games by Anna Krien.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

I realised that my copy of Half Bad by Sally Green has gone missing, so that will need to be replaced.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

Diverse!

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Huge thanks to Christina for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Christina’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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Need Some Books For Your Weekend, Look No Further…

I thought as this week has been a bit of a mad rush, again, I would share some books you really might like to get reading if you hadn’t already. Some I might have mentioned and some I may have not yet, though probably will be a lot in the not too distant future. Now I know I have banged on about how I haven’t written a review in ages, well, guess what? I have, only it isn’t on the blog, it is over at Dead Good where I have reviewed Louise Doughty’s Black Water which is highly recommended reading for you weekend ahead. You can see my review here. You can also see my lovely former co-host of The Readers Gavin’s thoughts on Sharon Bolton’s new thriller Daisy in Chains here, which is teetering high on my TBR at the moment.

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Another book I have forgotten to shout about the release of, thinking of your reading weekend needs again, is Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way Of Things which is finally out in the UK. Hoorah! I read the book last year and was completely blown away by it. Charlotte also kindly joined me on You Wrote The Book a couple of weeks ago which will have you rushing out for the book if my review isn’t enough.

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This week Lisa McInerney won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. I was thrilled as it was my joint second favourite, as I shared with you here earlier this week. Having read the whole longlist it is certainly one of the titles that stuck out and then stayed with me. My review will be up soon, it is on the list of the great unreviewed books of Simon Savidge 2016.

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Finally, if you haven’t picked Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel This Must Be The Place then you really should think about it. I have been on a mini Northern Tour with her this week and below is the video we made ‘backstage’ at Waterstones which gives you more info on the book in a slightly rogue and tenuous way. Hope you enjoy it…

So those are my recommendations should you be in a bookshop/library this weekend, and why wouldn’t you be? Any recommendations for me? I am actually planning on locking myself away from the world with a pile of books and just read, read, reading all weekend long. I have Sarah Perry’s wonderful The Essex Serpent to finish and then I think I will be heading for Jung Yun’s Shelter, after that who knows? Seems like the book slump is joyously over though doesn’t it? Hoorah. What are you all reading?

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The Bailey’s Prize, Some Final Thoughts…

Tonight is a very exciting night. Not just because I will be in conversation with Maggie O’Farrell about her latest wonderful novel This Must Be The Place at Waterstones in Liverpool, before heading to Waterstones Manchester with her tomorrow – do come if you can. It is also the finale of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is very exciting indeed. Having read the whole longlist this year, and by default the shortlist, I have decided to share my thoughts on the six novels that have made it through to the penultimate place.

In a change to the normal format of me rambling on for several paragraphs I have decided to share the video I made (I have mentioned I have reignited my YouTube channel, so do please have a gander and subscribe) about them all below. So now you get to see and hear me rambling instead.  I hope you give it a whirl…

So those are my thoughts. Yes, I am being mean and making you watch all it to know my thoughts. I would love yours. Which of this tears Bailey’s prize shortlisted novels have you read and what did you make of them? Which one would you like to win? (And if you are reading this after the winner is announced, what do you think of the winner – you will probably know before I do, ha!)

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