The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins

Short Take:  No Gone Girl.


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Is it me, or is every book coming out lately with a female lead of questionable motives being hailed as “The Next Gone Girl”?  Is that annoying to anyone else?  Gone Girl is in a class of its own.  It was a brilliant social satire disguised as a mystery, and was excellent for a whole lot of reasons, not just because of the rare appearance of (spoiler alert!) a female sociopath.  So can we all just agree that the only Gone Girl is Gone Girl, and get on with our lives?  I’m really sick and tired of having my emotions toyed with by publishers who want to make money off of something that’s not even remotely like what they are marketing.

The Girl On The Train is yet another “next Gone Girl”, except for, you know, it totally isn’t.

Once upon a time, Rachel was married to Tom, and it was a lovely marriage, until Rachel’s infertility, depression, and alcoholism drove him into the arms of Anna.  He divorced Rachel, and now he and Anna and their baby daughter live in the house that used to be Rachel’s.  Rachel is still drinking heavily, obsessing over Tom, and riding the train, daily, past their house.  It’s another lovely couple that catches her attention, though.  In her mind, she calls them Jason and Jess, and they are frequently outside where she can see them clearly when the train makes a stop.

They look like everything she no longer has.

One night, Rachel drinks WAY more than usual, and has decided to confront her ex-husband Tom.  Or maybe she’s going to tell “Jason” (real name: Scott) that she has seen “Jess” (actually, Megan) kissing someone else.  There’s a whole booze-logic thing working there, and the next day, Rachel can’t remember exactly what her intentions were in going to that neighborhood, or what happened there, but she’s got some new and interesting cuts and bruises, and Megan has disappeared.

From there, the story is mostly a typical mystery novel.  Other than multiple unreliable and extremely unlikeable narrators, there’s not much new ground.  Rachel, Megan, and Anna all have behaved selfishly, wretchedly, and have plenty of reasons to skew the narrative in their favor.  Rachel trying to insinuate herself into the investigation via Megan’s husband Scott, using his shock and grief to her advantage, is unconscionable.  Anna is the mistress-turned-wife who seems far happier at having broken up a marriage than in being married to the man herself.  And Megan… she is the only one I felt any sympathy at all for, but even that was tempered by my revulsion at her need to destroy things.

While plenty of other mystery novels have used memory loss as a plot point, I don’t know of many who captured the perfect wretchedness of alcoholism this well.  When Rachel wakes up after a blackout, the sick, panicky, guilty feelings she has are familiar to any of us who have gone way past our limits before.  Her drinking even when she has promised she won’t, even when it will clearly cause problems, even when it will cost her even more than she’s already lost, is both pathetic and maddeningly realistic.  But at the same time, it seems like she has a blackout whenever it will be convenient for the plot, and even when she’s sober, she makes such skull-slammingly stupid decisions, it’s hard to see her as anything but ridiculous.

The story is okay, and like I said, the whole alcoholic blackout aspect of it was handled competently, but The Girl On The Train lacks the kind of blistering commentary that made Gone Girl such a phenomenon.  Where Gone Girl spits at a whole bunch of misogynistic stereotypes, The Girl On The Train revels in them.  We have women being catty and cruel to each other over a man.  Women who are helpless little victims of their own shallow, selfish desires.  Women who believe fervently that the right man could fix their lives for them.  In fact, the only non-terrible female character is Rachel’s roommate, Cathy, and she’s mostly treated as a rather stupid obstacle.

What’s funny is, I might have enjoyed this book a lot more if the Amazon page weren’t demanding that I compare it to Gone Girl.  That’s a comparison that’s unfair to pretty much any book.  So publishers?  Cut it out already.


The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

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Lie To Me, by David Martin

Short Take:  This might be the most cracked-out, violent, bizarre, hilarious, disturbing book I’ve read in a very long time.


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“He sits in the woods holding her hand.”  That’s about as innocuous a first line as they come.  Dude’s just chilling in the woods, holding a girl’s hand.  It sounds kind of nice, actually.

But the dude in question is a seriously messed-up person.  His name is Philip, and he just got out of prison.  The girl’s hand?  It used to belong to a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker, and he carries it everywhere.  And he’s not chilling in the woods, he’s hiding, watching the home of wealthy businessman Jonathan Gaetan and his beautiful young wife Mary.  When night falls, he breaks into the house, threatens and brutalizes them both, and when morning comes, Philip is gone and Jonathan is dead in the bathtub, savagely butchered.

Yet when Mary calls the police, she insists it was a suicide, and never mentions the intruder.  And that’s just the start of the craziness.

Theodore Camel, the cop investigating Jonathan’s death is, well, an a-hole.  He’s boozy and burned out and bitter and just wants to nap at his desk until he can collect his pension.  At one time, he was a hotshot known as The Detector because of an uncanny ability to persuade (read: bully) suspects into telling the truth.  Camel would have preferred to stay out of the whole thing, but given the high profile nature of the case, the higher-ups want him to dust off the old Detector act to interrogate Mary Gaetan.  He can tell that she’s lying, but she sticks to her story, that Jonathan cut himself nearly to pieces in the bathtub.

It’s the next day, when Jo-Jo Creek, Jonathan’s assistant, shows up with some new and interesting information that Camel finds himself wanting to solve this particular mystery.  Teaming up with his old partner, Alfred, he (almost against his will) takes on a case with more twists than a small intestine.

David Martin doesn’t just Go There.  He buys a house, moves in, and becomes the mayor of There.  There’s quite a lot of sexual sadism in this one.  Like, to the point that I think the phrase “cut it off” could be retired.  His writing style is some of the best I’ve seen, though.  There’s a lot of story in less than 300 pages, and no wasted words.  Every sentence is perfectly on point.  For example, when Camel meets Jo-Jo, this happens:  “‘I have some information,’ she announced. A lot of what she said came in the form of announcements.”

That, right there.  Two brief sentences, and you already know so much about the character.  That’s the difference between telling a story, even a good one, and serious word craftsmanship.  I was so caught up in the delicious story, and fantastic, if unlikeable, characters, that it didn’t dawn on me until I started this review that Lie To Me was first published in 1990.  I didn’t even notice the lack of cell phones and Internet in the detective’s toolbox.

And let me just say, Philip is one of the most fascinating bad guys I’ve come across.  He’s sick, he’s insane, he has zero limits.  He has a lifetime and a half’s worth of seriously awful stuff in his head, and the only thing you can be sure of with him is that no matter what you think he’s about to do, he’s going to do something worse.  But he’s also just not that smart.  It’s refreshing to read a character that is horrible and scary but also comically inept.  When Philip would fail to do something terrible (usually injuring himself in the process), I found myself cheering and giggling.  Hannibal Lecter he ain’t.   His missteps are hilarious… until they aren’t.

There are two major revelations by the end of Lie To Me, and I’m proud to say that I had figured one of them out.  The other one, however… whoa.  Also, ew.  There’s a final scene, after the mystery is solved, and the characters have all gone onto whatever happens after The End that just doesn’t square with the rest of the story.  In a lesser book, it would probably cost the author a neuron in my rating, but when the rest of a story is so fantastic, I’ll forgive him a few pages of questionable choices.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS.  

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My Sister’s Grave, by Robert Dugoni

Short Take:  This could have been just another fun, fluffy mystery novel, but it was SO MUCH BETTER.


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The archetype of the Female Detective rocks my socks, y’all.  In a world where anything that’s described as “feminine” or “like a girl” automatically means less-than, these characters can shoot, fight, run, curse, and detect just as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts.  They work harder to be taken seriously, but they still look fantastic in high heels and lipstick.  They’re ballsy and tough and have hot sex with hot guys.  They might take some abuse for being a woman in a man’s profession, but in the end, they will make their detractors eat those words, usually while handcuffed or being ridiculed by their colleagues.

In short, there’s this whole awesome trend of badass women in books, movies, and TV, and I think it’s fantastic.  So of course, I knew I would enjoy My Sister’s Grave, but I didn’t really have super-high hopes.  The title is seriously pretty bad.  I figured it would be pretty cliched, but what the heck, sometimes, it’s fun to read something where you can figure out the end and feel smart, you know?

Ok, I guess I’m not that smart, cause WHOA, I totally did not see that coming.

Tracy Crosswhite’s sister Sarah disappears one night while driving home.  Soon afterward, Edmund House, a convicted rapist, is tried and found guilty of her murder, despite the fact that her body has never been found.  Twenty years later, Tracy has become a detective in Seattle, and is still trying to find out exactly what happened to Sarah.  The evidence against House (who is still in prison) is flimsy at best, and his trial was a joke.  But without new evidence, there’s really nothing to go on.

Then Sarah’s body is found.

Tracy goes back to her childhood home, the small town of Cedar Grove, and teams up with an old friend (Dan O’Leary, who is now an attorney)  to get an innocent man out of prison, and to find out what really happened to Sarah.  She’ll get the answers that she’s been digging for, but in the process, she’ll set off a truly horrific chain of violent events.  And when I say violent, I mean VIOLENT.  The author’s restraint throughout the first 85% or so of this book makes the ending that much more shocking.

Robert Dugoni has a way of flirting with stereotypes but never completely embracing them that elevates this book.  For example, the small-town sheriff, Roy Calloway, is almost but not quite exactly the corrupt redneck Boss Hogg type.  Tracy is everything I said above about the archetypal female detective, but she also isn’t quite so perfect and invincible.  In this case, her single-minded obsession with solving the crime actually does more harm than good.  Being lulled by characters who are exactly what you expect, only to have them veer off in a different direction, is fantastic.

The pacing is a little weird, but it works.  There are a few chapters that feel draggy (usually dealing with Sarah’s other cases in Seattle), but it’s a really effective reminder of just how much real life happens, even when there’s something else that you think is much more important that you want to focus on.

And finally, the setting is really, really good.  I also live in a small town that’s been dying for the last couple of decades, and I think that Dugoni really captured that sense of people who know that things aren’t good, but who are afraid to try to change anything and lose what little bit of a livelihood they still have.

Definitely a must-read for people who love a great mystery, regardless of the gender of the detective.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS

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Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Short Take:  Oh, you like murder mysteries with a twist?  Hold my drink and watch this….

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This review is a hard one to write, namely because I can only say “WOW GREAT AMAZING” so many ways.

Broken Monsters begins with Detective Gabriella Versado at the scene of a bizarre homicide.  The corpse is actually half of the body of a 10 year old boy, and half of the body of a deer, somehow fused together.  It’s strange, and otherworldly, and hideous, and it won’t be the last one.

Assisting her is brand-new-detective Marcus Jones, a touchingly earnest rookie.  After earning the nickname “Sparkles”, Jones does everything he can to go above and beyond in solving the case, and also to provide a spot of comic relief every now and then.

Working the bizarre homicides from a completely different angle is Jonno, a freelance journalist whose glory days are well behind him.  With his girlfriend, DJ Jen Q, he is trying to expose the murders in order to create his own documentary.  He’s a particularly sleazy breed of opportunist, willing to exploit the horrific murder of a dead child for his own career.

Beyond the crime-scene tape, Versado’s 16 year old daughter, Layla, is a good kid who’s starting to play with fire.  Artistic and a bit of an outcast, she and her new friend Cas have been playing To Catch A Predator with an online pedophile.  What starts as a prank turns dark and ugly, and Gabriella is far too preoccupied with the media-intensive case to realize what’s going on until events have started to spiral out of control.

And finally, there’s TK, a homeless man with a gift for resource liberation and allocation that he uses to benefit as many of Detroit’s homeless as he can.

Speaking of Detroit….

Without a doubt, the main character in Broken Monsters is the city of Detroit.  It’s grimy and squalid, it’s run-down, shabby, crime-ridden, and decaying.  The overwhelming feeling rising off the streets like an odor is despair, and it wafts off of every page. For every person trying to bring back art and culture to the motor city, there are a dozen others who would be happy to see it all burn.

What’s fascinating is that, as insane as the murders are, there are other crimes, smaller crimes, that are happening everywhere, not just the Motor City.  There’s a subplot revolving around a drunken high school girl’s sexual assault that has been recorded and put on the internet, in an uncomfortable echo of Steubenville.

There’s a lesson here as well, regarding our own voyeuristic tendencies, the way we make entertainment of the tragedies of others.  It almost reads like a cautionary tale, like Detroit and its misery is actually what the future holds for all of us.  As a species, we’ve become jaded to the suffering of others, and so isolated from our neighbors that other people are often little more than images on a screen.  It’s this tendency that gives power to the worst of the worst.  If terrorists didn’t have a way to televise their beheadings, and an audience to watch them, would they still do it?

There’s a strong element of is-it-or-isn’t-it with regard to a supernatural slant to the killings.  I’m not going to comment on that either way, as I went into it with zero preconceptions, and it made for a damn fine reading experience that I wouldn’t want to ruin for anyone else.  Suffice it to say, the tension of not knowing what’s really going on is FUN.  There’s one scene where the question is settled, and that scene is flat-out insane in the absolute best way.  I can’t say enough without saying too much.

And finally, the characters are, in my humble opinion, what most writers can only dream of.  They are living, breathing, flawed, loving human beings.  Lauren Beukes has mastered the “show don’t tell” school of characterization.  Each person’s dialog and inner voice and choices reveal so much about them.   You understand them, even when you don’t agree with them.

I could go on and on, but I’m just going to say, read the book.  Read it slowly and savor it, even though you’ll want to race through it to see what happens next.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FIVE HAPPY NEURONS (only because I don’t have a picture with more than that.)

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Tell Me You’re Sorry, by Kevin O’Brien

Short Take:  Well, this is convoluted.

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In Tell Me You’re Sorry, Stephanie Coburn is a single airline pilot whose only family is her sister Rebecca, Rebecca’s husband Scott, and their two kids, CC and Ernie.  When Rebecca commits suicide, Stephanie is at first shocked, then furious when Scott remarries a mysterious woman named Halle just three months afterward.   And her world gets turned even further upside down when Scott, Halle, and both children are murdered on Thanksgiving, in an apparent robbery gone wrong.

Stephanie tries to figure out the deaths of her sister, brother-in-law, and their two children.  She slowly begins putting together the clues from her brother-in-law’s past, and finding connections to two other slain families who follow the same very specific pattern:

  • For several years, a father receives unsigned cards on Fathers Day.
  • Then the mother commits suicide (or seems to).
  • The grieving father remarries a short time later, usually within a few months.
  • Shortly after that, the father, children, and dad’s new wife are all murdered.
  • After the deaths, it’s discovered that all of the family’s money and valuables are gone.

In trying to solve the mystery of Rebecca’s death, Stephanie meets Ryan, a high school student/football star, who was living away from his family due to an estrangement with his father when his whole family was murdered.  He begins working with Stephanie long-distance to try to figure out why their families were targeted, and who the murderer is.  They are later joined by Allison, a teenage girl whose family may be next.  

To further complicate things, the bad guys know that Stephanie is on to them, which brings a next-level element of cat and mouse to the book, as they try to destroy her credibility and kill her before she finds them.  There’s also a whole side plot about a woman who’s been kidnapped and is being held prisoner throughout the story.

I’m just going to say it – I had it figured out about ⅔ of the way through.  I knew who the killer was, and why they were killing these people, and how they were getting away with it.  Usually I hate that when I’m reading a mystery.  I want to be kept in the dark, to have my head messed with, to be able to say “Oh man, how did I NOT see that coming??”  

I’ll give it a pass this time though, because knowing who the murderer was really built up the tension, in that it became a race to see if the characters would also figure it out.  There were a lot of close calls, a few narrow escapes, and several scenes that genuinely raised my heart rate.

However, there were also some things that just didn’t work for me.  There are several passages devoted to how much Stephanie misses her sister, but almost nothing about her dead niece and nephew.  There are also a couple of romances that develop, one of which is awkwardly shoved into the last few pages.  The characters aren’t especially interesting. We see a lot of what they do, but nothing really about who they are.  Maybe that’s why the final romance seemed so silly, because there was nothing at all before that showing that the two people involved were in any way attracted to each other.  Had the characters shown a little more emotional depth, the connection might have made sense.

Overall, I’d say that Tell Me You’re Sorry was fun, but mostly forgettable.  

The Nerd’s Rating:  Two Happy Neurons

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That Night, by Chevy Stevens

Short Take:  Not a great book, but still a really good book.

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Chevy Stevens has a gift for writing books that blend the past with the present.  I’ve read two of her other books (Still Missing and Never Knowing), and it’s no secret that she’s got a gift for twisting time periods together in a way that keeps you reading long after you should turn off the light.

That Night begins with 34 year old Toni being released from prison, where she and her high school boyfriend Ryan were sent for the murder of her younger sister, Nicole, fifteen years before.  From there, it immediately jumps back in time to 1996, where we learn more about Ryan, Nicole, and Shauna, the “mean girl” who makes Toni’s final year of high school hell.

The book runs along two parallel timelines throughout – we see Toni’s high school life, and the events leading up to the night of Nicole’s death, and we follow the “after” part of her story, through 15 years of prison, her release and attempts to build a life on the outside while simultaneously exposing the truth about her sister’s murder.  It’s not as easy as it seems.  Ryan has also been released from prison.  He’s the only one who might be able to help Toni find out the what really happened to Nicole, but as a condition of their parole, they are forbidden to contact each other in any way.  One phone call or casual wave on the street could send them both back to prison.

Not to mention, the real killer is still out there.

That Night was one of those books that I really liked, but can’t put my finger on exactly why.  I can’t say that it had a fast-moving plot.  Some chapters felt a lot like unnecessary filler.  I don’t want to give away too much, but an entire subplot revolving around a prison enemy could’ve probably been cut completely.  Toni’s interactions with Ryan, post-prison, felt unrealistic and cliched.  And the character of Shauna was almost like a caricature of the high school mean girl.  

And yet….

Despite the clunkiness of some of the writing, there’s more going on here, and it’s when Chevy Stevens takes hold of your emotions that the story hits the sweet spot.  I couldn’t help but genuinely feel despair and helplessness as I read.  I knew what was going to happen (Nicole’s murder), and all the way through, I wanted to change the outcome.  So brutal, but so well done.

The relationship between Toni and her mother was one of the best-written, most heartbreaking ones I’ve read in a long time.  They were both so human, so flawed, that it was impossible to not feel sympathy for both of them.  And the note that the book ended on with them… powerful stuff.  And incredibly realistic.  

Speaking of Toni – I can’t imagine a more skillfully drawn young female character.  She’s not clumsy or secretly gifted or incredibly gorgeous when she takes her glasses off or sharply cynical and witty beyond her years, or any of the other lazy shortcuts other writers take to establish a personality in girls.  She’s hurting and defiant and her voice comes through loud and clear.  She’s someone you instantly recognize, because either you were her, or your best friend was.  

Nicole is more mysterious.  She’s the perfect, obedient golden child that parents fantasize about, and that rebellious older sisters can’t stand.  Her secrets are teased out a few at a time, until the very end, when we finally learn the real reason she was killed.

When the truth about Nicole’s murder is finally revealed, it’s half of a let-down.  Maybe I’ve read too many mysteries, but the identity of the murderer wasn’t that surprising, despite a couple of red herrings.  While the who wasn’t much of a shocker, the why certainly was.  I’m not going to drop any hints here, but the killer’s motivation was definitely a “holy crap” moment for me.  

So while I enjoyed That Night a whole lot, I don’t know that I would put it up there with Chevy Stevens’ best.  If you’re already a fan of her work, you’ll breeze right through it, if you haven’t read anything by her, maybe start with something else.

The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS

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Stay With Me, by Alison Gaylin

Short Take:  A solid end to the Brenna Spector trilogy.

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If you haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, you should probably do so before starting this one.

Previous reviews are here:

Book 1:  And She Was

Book 2:  Into The Dark

Brenna Spector is once again looking for a missing person in Stay With Me, the final book in the trilogy.  This time, instead of hunting for a client’s loved one, she is frantically trying to track down her own missing daughter, Maya.  Brenna’s flawless memory (hyperthymestic syndrome) both helps and hinders her, as the past keeps slamming into the present, and Maya’s chances dim with every passing moment.

As Brenna searches for Maya, she also finds answers to the biggest questions in her own life – the truth behind the disappearances of her father and older sister, Clea.  Along for the ride are her muscle-head computer-savant assistant, Trent, her ex-husband Jim and his devoted wife Faith, her boyfriend, Detective Nick Marasco, and her mother, Evelyn.

It’s going to be very hard to review this book without giving away any major spoilers, because the revelations are plentiful in this one.

The big final reveal is a little more telegraphed this time, but there are still enough other twists to keep it interesting.  We finally learn why Brenna’s father really vanished.  And although the clues were there, in both of the previous books, I never put it together.  (Side Note:  Can I just say how impressed I am with Ms. Gaylin’s continuity?  She seems to have known where she was going from the beginning, and so many of the minor details from the earlier books have all come together perfectly.  EXTREMELY well done!)

This is a short book that has a lot of pages.  I think that sense of “short book” is due to the many flashbacks – a small amount of forward momentum plot-wise is expanded to show what happened when Brenna saw/heard something similar on (random date) when (some other person) was wearing (items of clothing) and so on.  The ending felt entirely too rushed.  There was so much build-up, and then it all ended in just a few pages, and in a way that didn’t completely hang together for me.  The kidnapper suddenly does a complete one-eighty, with very little explanation, and then everything is just over.

Other than the strange, abrupt ending, there was a lot to like in Stay With Me.  I mentioned before the continuity that seems damn near flawless.  I don’t think authors get enough credit for pulling off a trick like that, as we tend to only notice the times that the details don’t match up.

There are some fascinating themes in this book.  One of the biggest is, “you can’t change who you are.”  That’s a line that’s repeated over and over, throughout all three of the Brenna Spector novels.  Eventually, no matter how much you want to keep a secret hidden, it will come out. Our own words and habits always reveal us.

Also, perfect memory doesn’t equal perfect vision.  Brenna may be able to recall exactly everything that everyone has ever said to her, but at the same time, she doesn’t see the people themselves clearly.  Instead, she tries to change the outward characteristics of the people around her, while ignoring their reality.  She complains about way Maya texts, but has no idea that Maya has a completely secret, destructive, other life.  Brenna can’t stand Trent’s habit of creating goofy nicknames for her, but she doesn’t see that he’s really putting away childish things when it matters.  She wants her mother to be someone else entirely, not realizing that Evelyn has carefully chosen the life she has, and for very good reasons.  Finally, she needs Jim to stay forever preserved in a little box in her memory, no longer a real person at all, despite how badly Maya needs her parents to be able to work together.

It’s an interesting idea – that even the most perfectly-recalled image of a person can have nothing to do with the actual person.  Is it better to live with incomplete and untrue memories that are happy, or to find the truth that may be quite a bit uglier?  Are we sometimes better off letting people go, even if we don’t want to, or hanging on to someone even when it’s hard?

In her need to avoid the discomfort that seeing her ex Jim brings, Brenna also throws away all the good things about him, and in her single-minded search for Clea, she has never faced the idea that the sister she remembers might not be anything like the person Clea really was.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable ending to the Brenna Spector trilogy.  There’s lots of food for thought, and some excellent literary tricks.  I just wish the ending had been as fleshed-out as the flashbacks.

The Nerd’s Rating:  FOUR HAPPY NEURONS

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