Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Zombies!

Welcome to Day 26 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is Zombies!

Because why not?  I've slowly but surely come around to the realization that, while I often don't love "creature" books, I'm a big fan of zombies.  I think what I like about zombies is their versatility.  They can feature in the classic horror stories, campy thrillers, quieter, character-driven pieces, post-apocalyptic nightmares, and even romances.  Here's a list of some zombie books I've enjoyed, and some on my TBR:

Mrs. S's bookshelf: zombies

The Weepers: The Other Life
3 of 5 stars
This is a book I plan to stock in my classroom. I enjoyed it, but I think it will really appeal to some of my students who aren't so crazy about reading. It's short and full of action and gore (not so much my thing, but I know I have s...
Something Strange and Deadly
4 of 5 stars
Oh man, I just finished this book, and my pulse is racing. I am slowly starting to come around to the idea that I think zombie books are pretty awesome. This one is a little different from others I've encountered, though, in that the z...
3 of 5 stars
This was a good old-fashioned zombie romp! Of the zombie books I've read--and they are becoming more numerous than I expected them to--this one is the closest to watching a traditional zombie horror movie. Now, my theory of horror movi...
This is Not a Test
4 of 5 stars
I heard a lot of people praise this book very highly, and I was definitely not disappointed. I read this one relatively slowly--not because it was paced slowly (exactly the opposite) but because I was busy, and because I didn't want it ...
Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies
4 of 5 stars
I don't want to ignore the first half of this book, which continues the story of Russel Middlebrook, but I was so excited when I got to the second half and discovered that it was narrated by Russel's friend Min. As scarce as YA fiction ...


Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for...Yuck! (Also, "Yes, And")

Welcome to Day 25 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is Yuck*!

Yeah, so today's topic was going to be "Yes, And"--a major rule of improvisation and something that I think applies to writing in some interesting ways.  BUT then I woke up at 4am in the throes of the awful bug Mr. S had on Saturday, and now sitting up long enough to write this (ten minutes?) feels like running up the steps of the Empire State Building.  So, I'll have to owe you that other post (and to my improviser friends: please forgive me for being the billionth person to steal the one thing people know about improv and bend it to my own will.  Probably best if you skip that future post.) 

So today, Y is for "Yuck", as in, YUCK, I feel like garbage...and I'm glad for once that you all are my online friends and I don't have to worry about giving this to any of you. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Sunshine: Two Weeks In One Edition!

So...missed last week.  Missed it entirely.  Oops.

Part of that was due to blog fatigue--only two more letters to go, you guys!--and part was because I was mid-book on Sunday and didn't get round to finishing it in time for a review.  So here's what I've read in the last two weeks--including a book that I feel like I've been wanting to read since about the DAY I started blogging.  Jellicoe Road definitely topped the list of "books people have told me I MUST read"--and I'm SO excited and happy that I finally got to it.  I also completely fell in love with Meg Rosoff's books, which wasn't that surprising after hearing her speak and be awesome at SCBWI in February!

Here's what I read in the last two weeks!

 A Brief History of Montmaray (The Montmaray Journals, #1)A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A teeny-tiny fictional country, on an island populated by four villagers, a mad king, a grumbling housekeeper, and three royal girls? At the beginning of WWII? HELLO. Yes please.

As excited as I was to read this, it started off slow for me. I think the diary format, while endearing (holy moly, do I love Sophia), can be tricky in terms of conveying action and dialogue dramatically and authentically. Once I got used to the style, though, I found myself attached to all the FitzOsbornes (oh, including Prince Carlos, who I neglected to mention above because he is a Portugese Water Dog.)

The whole thing has more the feel of Downton Abbey than Code Name Verity, despite being set during World War II. Since Montmaray is so isolated, it's hard to get a sense of culture, and what little there is definitely feels pretty traditional (concerns for propriety, hemlines, etc.) But then the last third or so heats up into quite an exciting, suspenseful adventure, and I raced through it. I'm really looking forward to tracking down the sequels.

There is No DogThere is No Dog by Meg RosoffMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a strange book. I mean, really, what a truly bewildering, unusual book. And a funny one. And anxiety-provoking. And lovable. (Reviews excerpted on the cover of my edition with which I fully agree: "wildly inventive", "startlingly original", "thoughtful, hilarious.")

When a book makes me laugh out loud, that's a good sign it will be one of my favorites. When I have been reading a book for ten minutes and already laughed out loud twice, then gone back to re-read one of those lines and laughed out loud a third time...then it's this book. That has never happened before. Not that it's all a laugh riot, mind you. This book deals with literal forces of nature, life and death, love and sex, the weather. (Lots of weather. This is the most interesting book about weather you will ever read.)

And the clincher, the moment my brain actually articulated the words "Uh-oh, this book just stole my heart" is a little creature somewhere between a penguin and an anteater. He's an Eck. He's called Eck. He says "eck" a lot. He's the last of his kind, he's God's own pet, and he's a dear. I noted him as my favorite-ever minor character and about 20 pages later, he was vaulted into the plot in a way that meant I could not stop reading and/or thinking about this book.

But there are other characters, I suppose. Like God--properly called Bob--who is a teenage boy. Whatever comes to your mind when you hear the phrase "teenage boy" probably applies in this case: Bob is a sex-addled, self-centered slob. He's also creative, bold, and exciting (in short bursts.) (And he's nowhere near as nice as he should be to Eck.) Bob is in love with Lucy--who, unfortunately, is mortal. This is his story as much as it is his. It's also the story of Mr. B (imagine Rupert Giles, but if he really couldn't stand Buffy, if Buffy was God, and if Buffy had actually beaten him out for the job he wanted in the beginning.) Bob's mother Mona, Mona's poker nemesis and intergalactic tough guy Emoto Hed, and Emoto Hed's unflappable daughter Estelle also figure into the godly side of things, while Lucy's clergyman godfather Bernard, her be-cardiganed mother Laura, her prickly boss Luke, and Luke's daffy neighbor Skype(!!) round out the human cast. I've come to love them all, I suppose, although Mr. B is the clear winner after Eck, and Estelle next, and then everybody else forming the pack a ways back from third place (just because I love those three so much.) You may have different favorites; they're all favorite-able.

This is a book about people (to use the term loosely) in bizarre circumstances looking for equilibrium. Only one character has what it takes to actually bring that about. (Hint: it's not Bob!) Read this and see for yourself why I loved it. I'll leave you with one of my favorite bits:

"Eck tilts his head and gently licks Bob's ear with his long, sticky tongue. It is his special way of expressing sympathy and it is not effective."
--p. 18

I received a copy of this book through Goodreads First Read program in exchange for an honest review.
How I Live NowHow I Live Now by Meg RosoffMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've heard this book called dystopian or post-apocalyptic; those phrases both conjure the picture of something that feels far-off and strange. This book feels terrifyingly immediate and plausible. Shortly after Daisy travels from New York to the British countryside to live with her aunt and cousins, war breaks out. It's not trenches and nukes, as people have feared in the past, but shortages, new rules, and sporadic outbreaks of violence. It feels like I imagine war might really feel. And yes, there is survival involved, and horrible things happen (spoiler/warning: horrible things happen to both people and animals, just as a heads up, although it's nothing too prolonged.)

Daisy's voice cuts through all she has to go through and forces you to care about her and her cousins. Even as she grows closer to one cousin than is usually permissible in works more recent than Austen, it's impossible not to sympathize with her. I love her blunt observations and the gradual unfolding of her own problems and perspectives. And I love how quietly and simply this book breaks your heart.

 The Selection (The Selection, #1)The Selection by Kiera Cass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-read in order to prepare for the sequel.

Original review here.

 Jellicoe RoadJellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Warning: this review may be spoiler-ier than usual, largely because I feel like I am the LAST person on the entire internet to read this book. And because I loved it and want to talk about why. I will NOT spoil any of the major plot reveals, though.

I think I was warned too many times against the opening of this book--I was pretty much relieved to find that it was in English! But the opening, and the book in general, does something I love: it drops you in without much context at all, and asks you to work it out. All the pieces are there, but not all at once. This makes the unfolding story immensely satisfying, as you start to see things shift into focus.

And, ok. This may be a controversial opinion. So let me be really clear: I like Jonah Griggs a lot. I think he's great. I love the bits other people love: pulling over abruptly, his rubbish ideas about what's romantic, all. the. kissing.


Whatever I feel about Jonah Griggs is blown so far out of the water by what I feel about Taylor Markham. And particularly the evolution of the relationship between Taylor Markham and Jessa McKenzie. Jessa--and watching Taylor learn to love her--is my favorite thing about this book, hands down. (Um, so as you might imagine, I spent a fair amount of the last fifty pages or so sobbing. Like, I started as soon as I realized Jessa might be in danger, and then didn't really stop till the end because I was so overwhelmed.)

Anyway, thank you to everyone who's ever raved about this book. I'm one of you now. I love it SO much. (UGH, and I haven't even touched on Raffy or Santangelo. So good. SO good. Just read it. Or re-read it, I guess, because I'm the last one to this party.)

 The Elite (The Selection, #2)The Elite by Kiera Cass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book in this compulsively readable series. Kiera Cass writes the kinds of books that makes me curse book blogging, because I wish I hadn't heard of this series yet--it begs to be read all at once, and the third book doesn't even have a release date. But since I can't change the past or speed up the release of book three, I'll focus on book two.

Here's the thing about both The Selection and The Elite. The writing is actually not my favorite. And yes: the love triangle. Oh lord, the love triangle. It gets drawn out for. ev. er. So, I definitely have a few complaints--not major ones, not dealbreakers, but they're there.

...And then I get sucked into the plot and I kind of don't care. I get totally carried away by the caste system, the palace, the politics, the friendships, and the romance. And I want more. This series would make great spring break or beach reading: the books are both quick reads and I think they're a lot of fun. The Elite is a little darker than The Selection, as the political situations heat up both domestically and abroad, but at its heart it's still about a guy and a girl trying to decide if they're right for each other. I found myself thinking about The Selection way more than I expected over the year or so between when I read that and now. I have a hunch I will be experiencing similar pangs of "It comes out when???" between now and the release of the final book.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for X-Factor

Welcome to Day 24 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is X-Factors!

So, obviously, there are some books that are just awesome.  Great writing, great story, great characters.  Duh, right?

But sometimes, a story gets its hooks into a reader for a much more specific reason.  There's something about it that makes you cry or laugh or pump a fist in the air or sleep with the book under your pillow.  The X-Factor

Every reader has their own set of X-Factors.  I've tried to come up with some of mine:

--Horses, including carnivorous ones, but more than that--the people who love those horses.  Extra bonus points if the people who love horses are brooding islander dreamboats (looking at you, Sean Kendrick.) 

--Couples/characters with deep connections who are forcibly separated.  I'm talking true, soulmate-level connections: whether it's Maddie and Julie in Code Name Verity or Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler's Wife, seeing two people who really love each other torn apart may seem cliche, but it's also guaranteed to make me ugly-cry and then carry the book around everywhere for a week.

--Good depictions of performance.  Unfortunately, I can be very picky about descriptions of high school theatre, because it was my entire life as a teenager.  My school usually did five shows a year, and I managed to act in or work on fifteen of them over the course of my four years.  And we were super serious about it (note that I spell it with the more pretentious "re" ending.  That's how serious we were.)  So when I find a book that gets it right--whether it's theater, music, or dance--I get super-excited.  (It's what made me fall in love with Elodie's MS when I started beta-reading it!)

Of course, all the books I've mentioned also have great writing, great story, and great characters.  But the thing that really took hold of me and made me love them were my X-Factors.  What are your X-Factors?  What books have you loved because of your X-Factors?

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Winning!

Welcome to Day 23 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is Winning!

Just a quick one tonight, to celebrate my beloved Buffalo Sabres winning the last game of their season.  It was a cruddy season for them (but hey: at least the lockout made it a short cruddy season) but I will love them forever.  It doesn't hurt that right around when I started following them, they had a pretty awesome season and playoff run, the highlight of which (for me, anyway) was this amazing overtime game-winning goal during a playoff game by my first-ever favorite pro athlete, Maxim Afinogenov.  Check out his celebratory belly flop as the crowd freaks out:

That never gets old.  For me, it's a reminder to stop and celebrate your wins every day, large or small!

What's your favorite victorious moment--in sports, in movies, in books...or in your life? 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Virtual Community

Welcome to Day 22 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is Virtual Community!
Today's topic could also be "the reason I blog", but that doesn't start with a V, now does it?

I'm learning about myself as I go through this everyday blogging challenge--and the biggest thing I've learned is that when I have to post every day, I become a terrible member of the virtual community I love.  I started blogging a year and a half ago, mostly for my students, but I've stayed with it because of all the people I've met.  Getting to beta read for Elodie, becoming CPs/daily word buddies with Jaime (and through Jaime, getting to know Erin) swapping mugs with Katy and Sara during Jess and Kelsey's Sip Swap, meeting Rebecca and Ghenet in NYC...that's the good stuff.  And I love keeping up with everyone else's lives/writing/reading by reading and commenting on their blogs, and by chatting in the comments of my own blog. 

But, with the news about the impending demise of Google Reader* and the Blogging A-Z challenge hitting around the same time, along with the beginning of my 300-words-a-day deal with Jaime and picking up more hours at work...I've been slacking off as a virtual friend.  So, blog pals and commenters, I apologize.  I know people sometimes try to discredit "virtual friends" as if they aren't real, but that's a load of garbage.  I miss being an active member of the virtual community, and I'm looking forward to spending less time writing my own blog posts and more time commenting on yours/responding to comments here. I just have to manage W, X, Y, and Z!

*I tried out Feedly and The Old Reader.  It took ages--I'm talking, days or maybe even weeks--for my turn in the import queue with The Old Reader, but now I'm liking it quite a bit.  But the switch did mess with my routines--I still find myself trying to click through from my open Gmail tab into Google Reader.  I just don't have the automatic urge to click on The Old Reader yet.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U Is For Unread Books!

Welcome to Day 21 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train.  Today's topic is Unread Books!

My physical TBR pile

 I recently tweeted a photo like this--it's changed a little since then, but I think I've added more than I've read.


Yup.  Friends, I'm in trouble.  Awesome trouble.

How do you decide which book to read next when your pile of unread books is threatening to take over your house?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

T is for The Theory of Everything

Welcome to Day 20 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson!

The Theory of EverythingThe Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is somehow a truly delightful book about death; a frequently funny story of grief and anger and loss. After Sarah’s best friend dies in a horrific freak accident, it’s like Sarah no longer has control of her own mouth. Her “snark box” turns on at the drop of a hat, and she’s messing things up with everyone in her life. Watching her claw her way out of the angry, scary hole she’s in at the beginning of the story would be compelling enough, but her voice is one of the clearest and most authentically “teen” voices I’ve read in a long time. This book is satisfying without being trite, and moving without being one of those books that totally destroys you. I loved Sarah’s quirks--her pockets, I’m afraid, look a lot like mine, and her charts and doodles add a lot of charm. Recommended for anyone, especially fans of contemporary stories that don’t totally revolve around romance.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

S is for Storyteller, The

Welcome to Day 19 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Storyteller, The!

This is another one that I read for the Cybils but didn't post about.  I don't typically post negative reviews but that's because I don't typically finish books I don't like.  I tried to be fair to this one while also explaining my issues with the book.

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis

I guess I am just the absolutely wrong reader for this book. I'm not giving it a star rating because if not for the Cybils, I wouldn't have finished this one and therefore wouldn't be writing about it.

That's not to say that nothing about it was good. Some passages were really lovely, and I liked the relationship between Anna's mother and Abel's little sister. I know a lot of people really loved this one--after all, it did make it into the finalist round in a crowded field of Cybils nominees. So please take this as what it is--one reader's experience.

This book read very slowly for me, and I never really got emotionally invested. It was grim and dark and depressing, and at times I found the story pretty repellent. It really had me thinking about my stance on the role of morality (I guess? That feels like the wrong word) in YA lit--I can roll with the drinking (it is Europe, after all) and the drugs, and the violence, and even a certain character's other illegal activities, because it feels justified by the story. But there was one central event that was, for starters, really hard to read--and then the way it was resolved really felt upsetting and not-ok to me. (view spoiler)[When Abel raped Anna, the book suggested that the way for her to move past that was...to then go ahead and have consensual sex with him so that she could trust him again? Now, I would never tell a real-life trauma survivor that she was handling her trauma incorrectly, but as a fictional suggestion about how rape should or might be handled...this one seems potentially pretty damaging. It also was just hard for me, personally, to stomach. (hide spoiler)]

In short--I don't believe in censorship, and I wouldn't tell a kid NOT to read this book, but I also wouldn't stock it or recommend it to a young reader. It just didn't sit right with me.

But really, if this hadn’t been for the Cybils, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as any of that, because on top of everything else I was bored by this book. Like I said, though, many other readers disagree with me--so if you're in the mood for a dark, dark contemporary read with a fairytale woven into it, try it. You might feel differently.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

R is for Rigor

Welcome to Day 18 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Rigor!

Today, I don't have something to share, so much as a question to ask: I try to use YA novels as much as possible in my teaching, but it's sometimes a hard sell.  The word I hear a lot in those discussions is "rigor"--as in, YA texts aren't rigorous enough.  I should be teaching higher-level texts that stretch students' abilities.  I agree that this is one goal of teaching literature (equally important, to me, is making sure my students leave my class as people who love reading) and I don't think it's necessarily incompatible with YA.  But I'd love to put together a list of "rigorous" texts--text with complex language, texts that require a lot of work from the reader (but ideally also reward that work.) 

So I'm turning to you all--what are some YA novels you love that are challenging, and what about them might a young reader find challenging?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Q is for Quitting (Not!)

Welcome to Day 17 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Quitting (not!)

Yikes, y'all--this is right up to the wire.  But after many, many tearful conversations on the sidelines of youth soccer ("But I hate it!"  "You made a commitment!") I'm no quitter.

So, a last-minute alphabet blog post, and hopefully 9 more on-time ones!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Performance!

Welcome to Day 16 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Performance!

This performance was too amazing not to share, so I shuffled some letters and got it in.  Besides--we're all trying to tell stories this well.  Why not learn from this teenaged master of the art?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Other!

Welcome to Day 15 of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge here at Reading on the F Train. Today's topic is Other...as in, books I love that aren't easily categorized, so I lump them together under "other!"

I'm terrible at keeping up with how we're naming genres and categorizing books these days--I know I should stay better-informed, but since I read a lot of different kinds of books, I don't feel like I need to track things too closely.  I tend not to do "creature" books (vamps, mermaids, werewolves, fairies/faeries, etc.) but I will if there's a really good reason (like how I'm definitely going to get around to the Wolves of Mercy Falls series at some point, because MAGGIE.)  Other than that, any old thing might grab me.  So here are some of the tougher-to-categorize books on my all-time favorites list.  (Looking at all three of them together...perhaps the category they fall into is "dementedly wonderful.")

Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, #1)Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy mackerel, this book did a number on me. I mean, on the one hand, it is funny. Kami, Rusty, and Kami's dad in particular made me smile, laugh, and occasionally interrupt whatever Mr. S was doing to read out passages that made me audibly snort.

And then, on the other hand...Kami and Jared. I can't think of another relationship that I've felt this strongly about since the January I read both The Time Traveler's Wife and the His Dark Materials trilogy and spent the whole month crying hysterically. (And that was...seven years ago? So, I mean, this is Really Saying Something.) Like Clare and Henry and Lyra and Will, Kami and Jared have a deep but problematic connection. For their entire lives, they've been inside each other's heads. Each thought the other was imaginary...until they come face to face with each other at seventeen.

I don't want to say too much, because this story is so well-told that I don't want to spoil a second of it. I will say that in addition to fiercely loving and rooting for Kami and Jared, I adored the supporting cast (which contains my new favorite ship, btw.) I loved the quaint, creepy town--and I loved the fact that when the first big revelation came, it was very matter-of-fact and felt simultaneously shocking and obvious: yes, of course that's the truth. Why would anyone be surprised to learn that? (Never mind that I was frothing at the mouth, dying to find out what it was just the page before.)

And then the ending. Ok, how to do this without spoiling ANYTHING AT ALL. Um, it made me feel lots of feelings. LOTS of them. But I won't tell you what kind. Just read it, ok? Seriously. Read this book.

The Cavendish Home for Boys and GirlsThe Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Calling all middle school teachers: this book may be the world's greatest Halloween-time readaloud. The writing just begs to be read aloud, with a style reminiscent of Roald Dahl and an action-packed ending that surpasses even his supreme creepiness. There is one chapter in particular that ends with a revelation that I know would have had my sixth graders from last year FREAKING OUT. Now, maybe you don't want a readaloud that will make kids jump out of their seats and scream and fall down on the floor (I promise you that's what would have happened if I read this to my former students) but those are my favorite moments. This book is SEVERELY creepy and a lot of fun to read. Just a tip: don't read it over meals. Or in the dark. Basically, you want to sit in the middle of a bright, uncluttered room, where you won't have any reason to think you see anything moving out of the corner of your eye. But definitely find a room like that, because you want to read this creeptastic story of shiny, perfect Belleville, and shiny, perfect Victoria Wright, and what happens when her skunk-haired, messy, musical friend Lawrence disappears into the shiny, perfect Home run by the shiny, perfect Mrs. Cavendish. [Spoiler Alert: not everything is as shiny and perfect as it seems. But you probably figured that out from all the roaches sprinkled across the margins of the pages and throughout Belleville.] Now is the perfect time for a delightfully, revoltingly horrifying read like this one--check it out!

Beauty QueensBeauty Queens by Libba Bray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know what they say about books and covers and not judging? Yeah. That. I know a lot of people loved this cover, but it just never grabbed me. I did, however, love Libba Bray's Great and Terrible Beauty series, and also her response to the Soundalike Book Awad Debacle this fall, so when I saw a signed copy of Beauty Queens at Books of Wonder, I decided it was worth adding to my collection. And then I sat down at the store and started reading it, and discovered that it was absolutely the funniest thing I've read in ages, and also makes a lot of really important, spot-on points about what we expect from girls and women. There are some stylistic choices that feel more like adult literary fiction than YA, which I think are great--footnotes and interjections from The Corporation--and if you're not used to that or into it, this book might take some getting used to. That kind of stuff isn't always my favorite, but Libba Bray just has the best, most twisted sense of humor and she made me love it. I can't really categorize this--there's sharp satire and social commentary, there's action-adventure, there's some steamy scenes, and there's a ton of glitter. What's not to love?

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