Once Gone, by Blake Pierce

Short Take: Hello, Clarice. These are the Days of Your Life.

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(*Note: I received a free copy of this book for review.*)

Once Gone is the first book in a series of thirteen (so far) starring FBI Agent Riley Paige, and as far as serial killer thrillers go, it’s pretty straightforward. Women are being killed, then mutilated and arranged to look like dolls. The investigation begins with Riley’s former partner, Bill, flying solo, and wishing that he had her brilliant mind to help on the case.

And why, you may be asking, is Riley, our ostensible heroine, not at the crime scene putting her extraordinarily intuitive mind to use? It’s because she is at home, not-recovering from a serious case of PTSD and major depression brought on by her previous case, in which she was held captive and tortured by a different serial killer.

Bill manages to get Riley back in the saddle, but she is definitely not OK. She is prone to horrific flashbacks, too much alcohol, and a need to prove herself that generally results in situations that cause more harm to her career. Meanwhile, more bodies are turning up, and Riley’s personal life is spiraling further out of control.

There is a lot to love about Once Gone. Mr. Pierce did a bang-up job in creating real characters in Riley and Bill, mainly by showing us what the people surrounding them are dealing with. Bill’s wife Maggie is fed up with his “marriage to the job” and is about to divorce him and take their two young sons with her. Riley’s fourteen-year-old daughter April is angry all the time and experimenting with drugs, torn up over her inability to help her mother heal. And of course, Riley herself is obsessed with bringing down a killer regardless of what it might cost her.

The pacing and structure are exceptional, with the story of Riley’s ordeal being dribbled out over time.  Essentially, the first story (Riley’s previous case) is told last, which makes for quite the page-turner, and although Riley’s profiling abilities border on ESP levels, her conclusions read as logical, not ridiculous or over-the-top.

The problem is that for all the devotion to the main characters’ lives, the story that should be front and center (the doll-killer-dude) is shoved in around the edges, a paint-by-numbers police procedural. There are a few obvious red herrings, and the obligatory higher-ups who are pursuing their own career-driven agendas and inadvertently sabotaging the investigation.

What I’m saying, in my usual long-winded way, is that when you strip away the soap opera elements of Once Gone, you’re left with an episode of Law & Order SVU. Clues are gathered, leads are followed, bad guy is caught. It’s an OK story (I like SVU, personally), but I feel like the author could have done more with the actual investigation, or told us more about the killer. We get a couple of chapters from his perspective when he’s doing his serial-killing thing, but we’re never really inside his head in a way that makes him frightening. His motivations are rather clumsily spelled out in the final confrontation, but for most of the book, he’s just generic serial killer #15,487.

And of course, because Once Gone is the first in a series, it ends on a cliffhanger, which is where the personal-life-drama hit the “too much” mark for me. With easily three books’ worth of over the top situations heaped onto Riley in just the first book, the thought of a dozen more is plain exhausting.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a cozy supply closet, cause man, I could use a nap.)

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The Other Woman, by Sandie Jones

Short Take: You can’t see red flags if you’re wearing rose-colored glasses.

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Can we all take a moment to appreciate fictional terrible mothers, and all the contributions they have made to modern entertainment? I haven’t done much (read: any) research on the rise in popularity of stories based on horrific mothers who make monsters of their sons, but I think that Psycho was the one that started it all. Although, I suppose I could make a case for the idea going as far back as Oedipus, right? But wait, he didn’t know that the hot queen he was banging was his mom, so maybe not? Anyway, the point stands that crazy mothers make for compelling stories.

Which leads me to The Other Woman, which begins with Emily, our heroine, meeting the man of her dreams, Adam. The pair have a short but intense courtship, with Adam checking every box on Emily’s Perfect Man List (all women have those, right?), except for one teensy tiny little flaw in their bliss: Pammie, Adam’s mother, does not want Emily in Adam’s life.

It doesn’t help that Pammie is much smarter and more determined than Emily. True to the ads, The Other Woman ends with a twist I didn’t see coming. But I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed it very much. The power struggle between Emily & Pammie was kind of cliche for the most part, and without the darker undertones supplied by Adam, could’ve been lifted straight out of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

You know how we all have that one friend, who’s constantly in a state of crisis, and you know that at least 75% of their misery could be avoided if they would just put on their big-person panties and stick up for themselves, but they never do? And so you let them go on and on and on and ON about their latest Awful Thing while you’re washing dishes or playing solitaire and making sympathetic noises, because you think they are genuinely a good person, but you kind of want to tell them to grow up and move on already and stop letting people walk all over them and maybe they wouldn’t be so miserable but you don’t want to hurt their feelings so you just let them vent?

Emily is TOTALLY that friend. Pretty much every time Pammie pulls something shady, or Adam ignores his mother’s meddling or gets angry at Emily for trying to tell him what’s going on, Emily’s response is to whine to her friends “BUT I LOOOOOOOOOOOVE HIMMMMMM!!!!”. It’s just as frustrating to read in a book as it is to live through in real life, only without the option of being able to say “Girl, you need to get the heck out, like yesterday. Ain’t no man worth all this bull puckey.”

And the epilogue was pretty awful. Anything I say will be a spoiler, so I’m just going to say it was lousy, and go find some vodka.

The Nerd’s Rating: THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a chocolate digestive, because I have no idea what that even means, but hey, it has chocolate in the name, so it has to be good, right?)

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From Away, by Deke Mackey Jr.

Short Take:  Book Nerd is sad.  Conflicted.  Loved the story.  Didn’t love the style. Hard to review.

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From Away was submitted to me by the author as a free book in exchange for an honest review.  I honestly think that Deke Mackey Jr. has the potential to become a next-level horror author.  Before I describe the plot, it should be noted that From Away is the first novel in, as I understand, a planned series of at least seven books.  This book serves as more of an introduction than a stand-alone work.  It’s also on the short-ish side, roughly 160 pages.  

Therefore, the plot is pretty small in scope.  Ren Lesguettes is returning to the island where he was born, accompanied by his teenage daughter Dawn.  Ren is a federal agent in charge of a project to build a bridge connecting the island to the mainland.  However, there’s a lot more to the island and its inhabitants than it would appear, and they have a very good reason to not want the bridge to be built.

The citizens of the island include a group of nuns who could almost double as Navy SEALS, an ancient couple who only answer questions if nobody is looking at them, a woman addicted to a bizarre drug, and a troubled boy trying to figure out his place in his family and in the island’s history.  

I’ll start with the good.  Mr. Mackey has a GREAT feel for setting.  The isolation of the remote island is fantastic.  He also has a deft hand with characters.  There’s a large cast of them, but they are all well-rounded, different, and interesting enough to make it easy to keep them straight.   Mackey manages to convey the awkwardness and obnoxiousness of teenagers/just barely adults without overdoing it, or sounding like someone’s dad trying to imitate cool phrases.

The dialogue is also pretty spot-on.  A few lines felt clunky, maybe a little overdramatic, but overall, I could hear the conversations clearly, and they felt natural.  It’s a hard thing to master, and I give the author full credit.  The pacing was also fairly perfect, as the secrets trickle out, and connections between the characters become apparent.

From Away is an intriguing mix of the supernatural terrors that are pretty common in horror novels, and the more common but harder to write down struggles that happen within families.  Sometimes, the wounds inflicted by words spoken by a relative can last longer than a bite from a mouth with a thousand teeth, and the author does a tremendous job of keeping the supernatural scares muted and in the background for most of the book, and really showcasing the family ties.  But the scary things with teeth are always lingering there in the corners.  It’s really great.

Now for the not-so-good…..

I’m well aware that style is a personal thing.  I mean, I personally think I look hot in my favorite baggy sweater with the stain on the sleeve, but my spouse frequently (and loudly) disagrees.  So I say this knowing that I am absolutely expressing an opinion that carries no more weight than anyone else’s on this particular subject.

For all the good things this book had going for it, the author’s writing style made it substantially less enjoyable.  Brief, choppy, fragmented sentences can work well for a few paragraphs to create a sense of urgency in, say, an intense action scene, but as a constant narrative style, it is difficult to read.  It felt like Clint Eastwood was in my head narrating this book.  I don’t want Clint Eastwood in my head narrating anything.  I don’t frequently quote from books, but here’s an example:

“The long breadknife saws. Separates three sandwiches into precise and unsquished quarters. Slides each off the cutting board into its own plastic container. Labeled long ago. Careful block letters in fading permanent marker.”  

And that’s describing exactly what it sounds like – a man is making sandwiches to pack for a lunch.  

All of the narration is like that, but the dialogue is not – it sounds like real, normal people speaking to each other, so I don’t think it’s a writer’s tic or habit so much as a stylistic choice that I just can’t get behind.

The best books are the ones that lull you into a state of complacency with some descriptive paragraphs, maybe a semi-meaningless conversation or other scene, and then BAM!!  Hit you with some unexpected twist, or horrific happening out of nowhere.  The short, choppy style of writing wouldn’t allow me to be lulled.  It doesn’t flow, I didn’t feel like I could drift along with the story.  If the goal is to have an edgy feeling throughout the book, it accomplishes that, but it also dilutes the scenes that are meant to have a genuine impact.  And to be blunt… it’s kind of annoying.

And that’s where it gets to be hard to be a reviewer.  I can see sooooooo much potential here.  It has all the elements of a really fantastic series – characters you really care about, a setting that’s pitch perfect in its beauty and creepiness, and horrifying family secrets.  But I kept finding myself putting this book down and not wanting to pick it back up.
The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS (and a shipwreck in a bottle.  Because that’s a cool thing to have.)

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A Choir of Ill Children, by Tom Piccirilli

Short Take:  Like reading Peyton Place while on acid.

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Southern Gothic is a strange little sub-genre, isn’t it?  As far as I know, the south is the only part of the US that has a type of horror named after it.  I don’t know why it tickles me so much.  Maybe it’s because I have always lived in a state that is considered by the rest of the country to be part of the South, but really isn’t.  There are none of the things that make the South lovely (warm weather, antebellum mansions), but far too many of the things that give the South a bad name (rednecks, poverty, poor education, etc.).

So Southern Gothic novels are a way for me to remind myself that living in the real south isn’t much better than where I am.  Sure, they have things like winters where your toes don’t fall off, but they also have swamp monsters and creepy witchy women and bizarre family histories, right?

Or maybe it’s just that the swamps and small towns of the south are uniquely creepy, and so books that are set there automatically have a bit of an advantage.  In any case, I love me some Southern Gothic, and Tom Piccirilli has delivered up an extra-large serving of it with A Choir of Ill Children.

Ostensibly, the narrator of the story, Tom, is also the main character, but it’s the town of Kingdom Come that really stays front and center throughout this book.  Tom is one of the last descendants of the wealthiest family in town.  (The others are his three brothers: conjoined triplets who have separate bodies but share a mind and a voice.  And they aren’t even the strangest characters to inhabit Kingdom Come.)

There are also a couple of mysteries that unravel like knotty wool throughout this book.  Tom’s mother disappeared years ago, and his father committed suicide.  A nameless, silent young girl has shown up in town, seemingly from nowhere, and someone with large feet is kicking dogs around Kingdom Come, sowing distrust among neighbors.  But again, the puzzles take a backseat to the people, and the town.

There are witchy women who cut off their fingers to make storms go away.  There’s a religious group, the Holy Order of Flying Walendas, who do a lot of drugs, take vows of silence, mortify their flesh, and bake their own bread.  Not necessarily in that order.  There’s Lily, a seductive schoolteacher who’s Tom’s on again/off again lover, and Maggie, Tom’s wife, who keeps a silent, ghostly vigil over him at night from out in the swamp.  Throw in a holy man who speaks in tongues and eschews clothing, a coke-addicted documentary filmmaker, a redneck with a thing about fencing as a sport, and a strange little carnival for good measure.  Don’t forget some hallucinatory interludes in which Tom has the same dreams as his mother, the ghost of a dead boy, a one-legged murderer, and a few other oddities that I can’t even remember off the top of my head.

It probably goes without saying that A Choir of Ill Children was a strange experience.

On one hand, the weirdness was great.  But on the other hand, there were just too many characters and settings and backstories for such a small book.  The central mysteries were often buried, and I would find myself forgetting about some large-ish plot element until it was brought up again.  Pretty much every character is identified only by a single-syllable first name, making it confusing to try to keep track of them all.  Ill Children could’ve been a really great book, and it’s clear that the author has no shortage of imagination or courage.  But  there was just too much of everything, and not enough foundation to hold it up.

In short, it’s just way too crowded in Kingdom Come.   And I may never cook with vinegar again.


The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS

Mayhem, by Sarah Pinborough

Short Take:  Jack the Ripper had some very creepy company.

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I’ve always been a big fan of the trifecta of disturbing reading:  Horror, Mystery/Thrillers, and True Crime.  The three genres do tend to have broad themes in common, such as violence, a puzzle to be solved, and usually, some kind of creepy setting (which, in the case of true crime, is often some perfect-looking suburb – YIKES).  But there aren’t many specific subjects that combine all three genres.

Jack The Ripper is the exception.  And, like Jack, Mayhem is the rare book that hits all three – the true crime, the mystery/thriller, and, most definitely, the horror.

There have been so many books written about the Ripper killings.  Carefully researched nonfiction tomes, semi-factual novels in which the mystery is solved once and for all, speculative works in which the Ripper was actually some demonic force.  And the movies… I wouldn’t know where to begin counting those.

I’m using a lot of words to say, Jack the Ripper is famous.  Infamous.  But what very few people know is that at the same time old Jack was doing his thing, there was a far more gruesome series of murders happening right nearby from 1887-1879.  Dubbed the Thames Torso Killer, the murderer’s trademark was to dissect his victims and leave their body parts scattered around London and in the Thames River, each piece carefully wrapped and tied in paper or fabric.

All of the above is historical fact, and it is the setting for Mayhem.

Dr. Thomas Bond, the local coroner/early criminal profiler is trying to help the police get an idea of the type of madman they are dealing with, and the long hours of trying to get into the mind of a murderer are taking their toll on his life and career.  He’s having no luck in solving the Ripper killings.  He’s not sleeping, he has no love life, and his enjoyment of opium is turning into a full-fledged addiction.

In the midst of all this, a torso is found in the construction site of the new police headquarters.  The body parts keep coming, and Dr. Bond quickly figures out that this is not the work of Jack the Ripper, that there are two killers stalking London’s slums.

During his investigation, he will team up with a couple of unlikely allies: a Jesuit priest with a habit of self-mutilation, and a madman, whose visions of the killings are destroying him.

Got all that?  Good.  Because there’s a lot more as well.  We get to tour the opium dens of the late nineteenth century, where peaceful rest and dreams are only a puff away – for a price.  We meet the charming Harrington family, who are Bond’s closest friends, as well as some of the other investigators working both cases.  And we learn a bit of so many things!!  From Eastern European folklore, to early forensic practices, Mayhem is overflowing with glorious nuggets of trivia and fun facts.  I can’t imagine the amount of research that Ms. Pinborough did.

The male characters were beautifully, gloriously, human.  Dr. Bond’s angst, and Kosminski’s terror and vulnerability were fantastic.  The female characters were…. there.  The only woman who appears in more than a couple of scenes is Juliana, and she’s a boringly perfect 19th century woman, who is very smart and very pretty and doesn’t do much of anything at all.

I take that back:  there are also a few scenes from the point of view of one of the killer’s victims, but she also is not very interesting.  All of her actions are nothing more than reactions to her former lover and later, the killer.  She has no agency of her own.  Typical of the times, I suppose, but not very engaging.

The setting of Mayhem is a series of interesting contrasts.  There’s the squalor and grime and stink of Whitechapel, and the illusory tranquility of the opium dens, and the beautifully maintained drawing rooms where men have brandy and cigars and manly discussions.

It’s strange to me then, that somehow, Mayhem just didn’t quite work.  There are a lot of great elements, like I said – the character, the setting, the cool mix of historical fact and supernatural entity.  Maybe it’s because once you take away the “wow” factor of Jack The Ripper’s London, what you’re left with is a pretty boilerplate horror novel, where the unlikely trio have to join forces to destroy the centuries-old evil.  I felt like the author created this beautiful setting, and breathed life into a couple of very interesting characters, and decided that was enough.  I would’ve liked a little more mystery, some twists and turns, maybe a few red herrings – in general, just more story.

There’s a lot of surface glitter to Mayhem, but not a whole lot in the depths.

The Nerd’s Rating:  Three Happy Neurons (and a hot shower. Believe me, you’ll appreciate it after this one.)

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Pray For Darkness, by James Michael Rice

Short Take:  Like reading a horror movie.

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Horror movies are a lot of fun, and I would be lying if I said otherwise.  Horror novels are, obviously, awesome.  But while they both share the “horror” moniker, they are actually very different mediums.

Horror movies tend to be fairly formulaic.  The teenagers with questionable morals are the first to die.  The loner will either go insane or save the day.  The good guy and girl-next-door types will survive to the end.  The characters are stereotypes, the deaths are gruesome, and bad things happen when the sun goes down.

Horror novels, on the other hand, are not limited by runtime and production budget, and they can get a lot more in-depth.  The good guys can do bad things or vice versa, we can get to know their backgrounds and understand why they act in the ways that they do.  Reading Pray For Darkness was a strange experience for me, because I felt like I was seeing a movie and reading a book at the same time.

Best friends Ben, Cooper, and Auggie are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Amazon jungle in Peru.  After meeting Brooke and Janie at a tourist lodge, they all decide to go camping in an unmapped part of the jungle.

Although the American group loves the idea of flirting with danger, they don’t expect to be put in a genuine survival situation.  There are creatures in the darkness that exist only to kill, but even death isn’t the end.  It’s a classic dream-turned-nightmare scenario.

The jungle is easily the main character in Pray For Darkness.  The exotic beauty and danger were written with such attention to detail, I could nearly smell the earthiness of the air, and feel the hot humidity even in the middle of December.  The sounds and colors were beautifully vivid.

Also, the cause of the zombification is actually pretty cool.  I won’t give it away here, but after seeing a few particularly icky youtube videos, I can totally buy it.  It’s the fun kind of “hey, let’s take this thing that’s real, and push it just a couple of inches further, and… HOLY CRAP!!”

I must give props to the author for remembering Chekov’s gun.  There it was, displayed in the first act, and there it was, committing murder in the final act.  No spoilers, but it wasn’t a gun, and it was set up perfectly.  Well done, Mr. Rice.  Well done indeed.

There were some aspects that just didn’t work for me though.  For example, the ages of the guys in this book.  Throughout the entire thing, they are referred to as “the boys” and with descriptions like “the boy’s slender frame”, I had the impression for about two-thirds of it that they were still in high school.  It made reading scenes where they are boozing and hooking up with women in their 20’s really weird, and how do high school boys end up in the jungle for a weeks-long vacation without any adults?  It might be nitpicky of me, but it was seriously distracting.  And when there was finally some information that clarified their age, the whole “boys” thing became even more annoying.  I just kept picturing some frat-bro with a backwards ball cap constantly referring to his social circle as “my boys” and yeah…. no.  (Nerds & frat guys have a long & ugly history.)

There’s also a rather baffling change in tense in one chapter.  I’m not sure if the intent was to make the action seem more intense and immediate, but it seemed more like a mistake in editing.

As I said earlier, Pray For Darkness is a horror movie in book form.  I won’t give away any spoilers, because it WAS a fun book, and I don’t want to ruin it for anyone else.  But basically, the hero gets a hero’s edit from page one.  Even his jawline is heroic.  He’s prepared for any emergency, and keeps his head when all the others are losing theirs.  Of course the girl next door type female falls madly in love with him.  There’s the overconfident jock, the kinda skanky-dressing hot girl, the weirdo loner.  Everything happens in the expected sequence, and there’s the obligatory setup for a sequel.

What I’m getting at, in my long-winded way, is that there really aren’t many surprises here.  Once I got a look at the jungle (and oh my, what an amazing look it was), everything was something I’ve seen before.  What sets books apart is the space to explore other paths, to go down twists and turns without having to give some imaginary test audience what they expect.

So this one is hard to rate.  As a movie, I’d give it a four, but as a book, a two.  I’ll just take the average.


The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS

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What Has Become Of You, by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Short Take:  Should have been much better than it was.

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What Has Become Of You was not a bad book.  It wasn’t a great book.  It was an OK book, and interesting enough in its own way, but not necessarily one that I would want to re-read, or even think about much after I put it down.

Vera Lundy has accepted a temporary teaching position at an exclusive girls’ school in Maine.  It’s the perfect opportunity for her to get back to her roots, teaching Catcher In The Rye by day, and working on her true-crime novel at night.

As she gets to know her students, she becomes closest to Jensen Willard, a talented writer whose assigned journals reveal a much darker, more desperate side than what the rest of the world sees.  What starts out as simple curiosity and concern on Vera’s part becomes something more, as she sees far too much of herself in the girl.  Vera begins crossing boundaries and risking her career to get closer to Jensen.  It seems as though she might really be making a difference, until Jensen disappears, and all eyes turn to Vera.

Having been raised on both Dead Poets Society and Single White Female, I kinda-sorta expected the story to travel one of those paths, but I was happy to be wrong.   It’s clear that the author had her own vision of where it would go, and I have to say, she followed it to its logical conclusion.  There were no awkward twists, or inconsistent plotlines.

I found the names in this story interesting. The spinsterish teacher’s name is Vera Lundy, which just SOUNDS frumpy.  And the rebellious student is Jenson Willard, which sounds an awful lot like “jimson weed” to me.  As Bell Biv Devoe helpfully pointed out, that girl is poison.  And the title itself is full of meaning.  It’s a question – what has become of you? – that could apply to several aspects of the book.

Vera used to be an artsy outsider type of girl, always looking at the inner circle of high school popularity, but never a part of it.  She used to nurture that part of herself with prolific journaling and a standoffish attitude.  But now, she’s 40, single, working on a book that will never be finished, clinging to the hope that the popular girls in school will accept her, miles and light years from who she thought she’d be.  It’s a question a lot of us ask ourselves, when we look at what our dreams used to be – what has become of you?

It’s also a question that can be asked in the most literal sense when Jensen disappears.

I think that my biggest complaint is that the book just isn’t that exciting.   I realize that it doesn’t necessarily take guts, gore, and car chases to make a good story (in fact, I’ve reviewed books where the opposite happened), but a story that has multiple murders, a disappearance, and a frankly uncomfortable teacher-student relationship should not be dull or tedious but somehow, it was.

I’ve tried to put my finger on what I didn’t like, why it didn’t work for me, and I’ve been coming up blank.  Maybe it’s that everything was filtered through the perceptions of Vera, and she was just a boring, unlikeable person.  Not interesting enough to be an anti-hero, too unimaginative to be an unreliable narrator.  We didn’t get to see much of her interactions with anyone other than her students, which as I’ve already pointed out, are self-centered and inappropriate.  Maybe if Vera had more of a life, this book would have as well.  But maybe if she had more of a social circle, she wouldn’t be as drawn to her students, and there wouldn’t be any story at all.

Maybe it’s that the author didn’t go far enough.  Vera’s “crimes” really aren’t that major.  The truth about Jensen isn’t that shocking (I figured out one of the major revelations about halfway through).  It could just be that I’ve read so many “thrillers” that I’ve become jaded.  In any case, it just wasn’t there for me.

The Nerd’s Rating:  THREE HAPPY NEURONS

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