Review: The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli

Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.

What’s it about?

Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? 

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.

It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. 

It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. 

And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

The Story                                                                                               

The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.

The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.

The Review

There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.

Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.

Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.

The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.

The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.

Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.

Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.

The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.

The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.

Many thanks to Quercus Books / MacLehose Press and Net Galley for the ARC.

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About the Author

Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.

Blog Tour: Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Hello and welcome to day 4 of the #Faithless blog tour! Today, it’s my turn 🙂

The latest book in the Oslo Detective Series by Kjell Ola Dahl, Faithless is published by Orenda Books, and translated by Don Bartlett.

I’ve never read anything of Dahl’s before, but as a father of Nordic Noir I thought perhaps I had better acquaint myself before I wrote this review! First published in 1993, Dahl has written 11 novels, the most successful being the books of the Oslo Detective Series, of which Faithless is the fifth instalment.

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The Blurb

Here’s the publisher’s blurb on the book:

Oslo Detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich are back… and this time, it’s personal…

When the body of a woman turns up in a dumpster, scalded and wrapped in plastic, Inspector Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that he knows her… and their recent meetings may hold the clue to her murder. As he begins to look deeper into the tragic events surrounding her death, Frølich’s colleague Gunnarstranda finds another body, and things take a more sinister turn. With a cold case involving the murder of a young girl in northern Norway casting a shadow, and an unsettling number of coincidences clouding the plot, Frølich is forced to look into his own past to find the answers – and the killer – before he strikes again.

Dark, brooding and utterly chilling, Faithless is a breath-taking and atmospheric page-turner that marks the return of an internationally renowned and award-winning series, from one of the fathers of Nordic Noir.

The Story

With this being the fifth book in the series, I was wondering if I would be at a bit of a disadvantage having not read the first four, but I wasn’t at all. Faithless opens with a stake-out that introduces two of the main characters: Frank Frølich, our detective; and Veronika Undset, whose murdered body is shortly to be found wrapped in plastic in a skip. The investigation into Veronika’s murder is just one part of a spider’s web of stories which run alongside each other towards the grand finale.

I did feel that the story was a little slow in parts, but there are tense sections scattered throughout that more than make up for this. In the second half of the book events start to speed up, and all of the loose ends which you’ve been wondering about come together in some truly gripping narrative.

I found the translation for the most part very good; although there were a couple of phrases in there that you don’t often find in written English – the one which stuck out most for me was ‘to the nth degree/for the nth time’.

The Characters

I wasn’t sure what to make of the characters to begin with – they are a bit of an eclectic bunch! Frølich is an individual who is personally involved with the investigation, and often seems morally challenged through the course of the book. His approach to his work is passionate but impatient, often bordering on reckless. A past which he tries so hard to avoid comes out of the shadows to haunt him, brought to life by the reappearance of an old friend.

Gunnarstranda seems to have more of a regard for the rules, but we see even him bend them from time to time. Lena, a younger police officer with a questionable choice of romantic relationships, is full of confidence and belief in her own opinions and abilities – a sound outlook to have, but not if it gets you in above your head and into a tricky situation, like the one Lena finds herself in towards the end of the book. I get the feeling she will come into her own in the next book.

There is a sense of rapport between the characters that you would expect to find in a group of people who’ve worked together for a while; and the book is peppered with humorous moments alongside the drama. Gunnarstranda wondering why on earth people insisted on changing into gym gear in the office was one of my favourite points, as I am guilty of this all the time!

The story is told through the eyes of all three of these characters, which means we get to see lots of different events and viewpoints, but it does mean that you sometimes have to remind yourself where one character’s story ended up last time you saw them…. That’s a standard issue for me though, to be fair 🙂

So what did I think?

Overall, I found this an enjoyable read – there are some serious twists in here, and though it took me a little while to get into it I was gripped by the end (what an end!). The only thing I felt this book lacked was more of a sense of place. Perhaps it’s because I have come to associate Scandi Noir with rolling, detailed descriptions of forest, lake and sea; or perhaps it’s because the last book of this kind I read was very heavy on setting-the-scene descriptions; but Faithless just didn’t have enough of it for my liking. I want more of beautiful Norway! Really though, that’s my only gripe.

Big thanks must go to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and blog tour maestro Anne Cater for providing me with this review copy and inviting me to my very first blog tour! Faithless is published on 15th April. Keep your eyes peeled for more blog tour reviews coming up:

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About the Author 

One of the fathers of the Nordic Noir genre, Kjell Ola Dahl was born in 1958 in Gjøvik. He made his debut in 1993, and has since published eleven novels, the most prominent of which is a series of police procedurals cum psychological thrillers featuring investigators Gunnarstranda and Frølich. In 2000 he won the Riverton Prize for The Last Fix and he won both the prestigious Brage and Riverton Prizes for The Courier in 2015. His work has been published in 14 countries. He lives near Oslo.

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Review: Me Before You, By Jojo Moyes

I am pretty sure that this is a book that needs little introduction. Despite all the hype around the book and the film – or perhaps because of it – Me Before You was never really on my reading list. When my husband bought me After You (the sequel) as last year’s Jolabokaflod book; I thought I’d better get hold of the original first and see what all the fuss was about.

The Story

Me Before You is the story of Louisa Clark, a 26-year old, recently redundant ex-waitress who accepts the position of carer for a young quadriplegic man, Will Traynor. What starts off as a somewhat rocky relationship gradually develops into something that will change both their lives.

The book opens with a snapshot of Will’s life before the motorbike accident which has left him paralysed, and completely dependent on other people. It is abrupt, over within a few pages; and creates a poignant point of comparison for what follows. Throughout the whole of the book, this is the only piece of narrative which is depicted from his point of view, and adds to the portrayal of his dependence on other people; as well as alluding to his experience of the general public in regards to disability and their attitude towards him in presuming that, because he is in a wheelchair, he no longer has a voice.

“…I had observed a few basic routines, as far as Will was concerned. Most would stare, a few might smile sympathetically, express sympathy, or ask me in a kind of stage whisper what had happened. I was often tempted to respond ‘Unfortunate falling out with MI6,’ just to see their reaction, but I never did.”

The Review

Me Before You elegantly and emotionally portrays the development of Will and Louisa’s relationship; from a state of mutual animosity to a strong and overwhelming love. The relationship presented between Louisa and Will is in sharp relief with the relationship between Louisa and Patrick, her boyfriend: a fitness fanatic who is obsessed with completing the Xtreme Viking, an intense triathlon in Norway. At times, Patrick is portrayed as almost comical; while their relationship gradually reduces to Louisa watching him run in circles around a running track, or listening to him talking about the merits of Japanese balancing trainers.

A favourite scene of mine occurs at Louisa’s birthday party; where Patrick and Will meet for the first time over dinner and, it is fair to say, do not get on so well. Louisa’s muted thanks for Patrick’s gift – jewellery – is thrown out of the water when she opens her gift from Will, a pair of yellow and black striped tights, just like a pair she used to have when she was young. This thoughtful action seems to be a turning point in the book; where we really see Will’s attitude begin to change.

The depiction of the two families – the Traynors and the Clarks – could not have been more different. The Traynors are rich and want for nothing; the Clarks in comparison are financially insecure and very dependent upon Louisa’s income to get by. However, when it comes to family bonds and closeness, the equation is completely reversed; the Traynors’ cold and distant attitudes and home in stark relief to the bubbly, noisy and loving Clark household.

While Louisa cares for Will, anticipating his every physical need as well as encouraging him to leave the house and start to see more of the world; Will in turn draws Louisa slowly out of her shell, encouraging her to read, watch foreign films, and embrace classical music and new foods. We learn that Louisa also carries secrets and scars, which Will helps to heal.

“I just… want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress. Just for a few minutes more.”

Jojo Moyes pulls you into this story so well that, before you know what’s going on, you are completely invested in the lives of these two people and the affect they have on each other. As the book progresses there are revelations on both sides, laughs, sadness and scares; as Louisa and Will fall in love. Because we only ever get to see the story from Louisa’s side, we are completely immersed in her plans, her beliefs and her hopes… and as such, completely floored by the way things unfurl towards the end of the book. I’m sure I was not alone in crying at the last few chapters. This was one of those books that left me hollowed out and a little bit numb once I turned the last page and closed the covers. For a few moments I am pretty sure I just sat staring at the blurb on the back of the book and wondering why on earth it had taken me so long to read it. This beautiful book will remind you, unashamedly and unequivocally, to just live. 

“You are scored on my heart, Clark. You were from the first day you walked in.”

After I’d finished Me Before You I picked up After You, the sequel I had been gifted… and stayed up until 12.30a.m this morning finishing it (it has taken 3 coffees to get me through today. Whoops). But that review, my friends, is a story for another day.

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Review: The Little Breton Bistro by Nina George

The Overview

The Little Breton Bistro (released 2nd March) is the latest offering from Nina George. Having devoured The Little Paris Bookshop on honeymoon last year, I couldn’t not request this ARC when I spotted it on NetGalley, and was pretty chuffed when my approval email came through!

The Little Breton Bistro follows protagonist Marianne on a quest to rediscover life. The book opens in Paris, on the banks of the Seine, as she prepares to take her own life. Stuck in an unhappy and loveless marriage to a dull and controlling man, Lothar; she just can’t see the point of going on living.

Her plan is thwarted by a homeless man who pulls her from the river, and she is whisked off to hospital for treatment. While she is in the hospital, she finds a small tile painted with the image of a beautiful port town, Kerdruc, in Britanny. She decides to escape the hospital, fully intending to complete what she started in Paris in this beautiful little port town.

The journey from the hospital in Paris to Kerdruc is full of quirky coincidences, and when Marianne finally arrives in Kerdruc, she is mistaken for the new chef at Ar Mor bistro. This is the turning point in Marianne’s story; and from this point we see her rediscover the joys in life, and help guide the people around her too.

The Review

Part of what really made the story for me were the descriptions of the landscape that flow throughout – George’s words paint a stunning image of the Breton coast, from sights, smells, to colours, and emotion.

As is her signature style, The Little Breton Bistro flows with an engaging and easy to follow storyline. A host of characters grace the pages, each of them contributing a different theme to the book; and contributing to Marianne’s transformation – we watch her turn from suffocated and timid to powerful and confident in herself. Her husband Lothar, by contrast, does exactly the opposite – although for the vast majority of the book he is only present in Marianne’s guilt; by the end of the story he has been stripped of the control he once had over her. This book is about love – new, enduring, unrequited – as well as birth, death and friendship. As her life changes from everything she once knew, Marianne arrives at a point where she must decide to hold on to the past; or embrace the future.

George’s writing style and stories always remind me of the film Amélie – colourful, full of life, with a sprinkle of the eccentric. French-ness. It is a winning combination.

I was surprised to learn that Nina George has written 26 books, as well as over 100 short stories – a quick Amazon search suggests that The Little Paris Bookshop and The Little Breton Bistro are the only ones to have made it across the continent to our bookshelves. Hopefully there are many more to come!

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for the ARC.

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Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me is the debut novel from Ayobami Adebayo.

The story is narrated by Yejide, the protagonist; and Akin, her husband. It opens with Yejide looking back on the past she left behind, the story she does not tell behind the simple statement ‘I was barren and my husband took another wife.’

Yejide and Akin are desperate for a child, as are their families. One day, her stepmother turns up with a new wife for her husband, to ‘help draw Yejide’s baby into the world’. This action kick-starts the unravelling of Yejide and Akin’s relationship. Her longing for a baby; the maliciousness of Funmi, the second wife; and the pressure placed on them by Akin’s mother; and the unearthing of many secrets; pushes them both over the edge in different ways.

Stay With Me is a well-written novel. The rhythm of the language used often reflects the mood of the protagonists; be that anger, sorrow, hope, or the languid acceptance characterising Yejide’s opening chapter. It is a gripping story, frequently emotional and raw. I enjoyed the way that the book changes between one narrator to the other – often Adebayo will use a switch in the narrative voice to break a secret to the reader, or introduce a plot twist. We get an insight into Nigerian culture; which is both interesting and, at times, shocking. Although the book is set against a period of political unrest; I didn’t feel like this played a huge part in the story – it was more a background rumbling, aside from a couple of brief points where it is brought to the fore. This is the only element of the book which I feel could have been explored/involved a little further.

Stay With Me is a tale of how the pressures of family and society can push a person to breaking point; as well as a story of betrayal, and the lies we tell each other – and ourselves.

Although Adebayo has had various short stories published previously; this is her first novel. I look forward to reading many more!

Stay With Me is published on 2nd March by Canongate. Thanks to NetGalley and Canongate for the ARC.

Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

I have not come across a huge number of books which can hook you on the first page; even fewer that can do so in the first paragraph. But the rawness of the opening sentence of Snowblind sets the tone for what is a very clever crime story and an outstanding first novel:

The red stain was like a scream in the silence.

The first book in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, Snowblind follows Ari Thor Arason, a young police recruit about to finish his training. He is offered a job with the police force in Siglufjordur, a small town he doesn’t know much about except that:

…one could hardly travel further north in Iceland; a place probably closer to the Arctic Circle than to Reykjavik.

He accepts, leaving his girlfriend and their apartment behind in Reykjavik and moving to the town where nobody locks their doors and, in the words of his sergeant, nothing ever happens.

Except when it does.

Installed in Siglufjordur, Ari Thor tries to settle into life in a small town surrounded by mountains. He takes piano lessons with Ugla, a young woman who has also recently moved to the town and understands his feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. On Christmas Eve, alone on the evening shift, Ari Thor receives a phone call which marks the beginning of an investigation that will chill the town to its bones. When a young woman is found seriously injured in the snow and an elderly, famous writer meets his death in the local theatre, Ari Thor must battle community secrets, heavy snowfall, and the avalanches which block off the only route in or out of the town.

Snowblind is an excellent novel, and an impressive debut from Jonasson. The characters are skilfully interwoven using a variety of narrative viewpoints, and there is a large enough quantity of these to tax your brain into trying to piece them all together; while not being so overwhelming that it’s impossible to keep up with what’s going on.

Jonasson’s description of the wild, raw beauty of Iceland and its small, isolated towns paints a picture of the country in the reader’s mind which is both impressive and intimidating, at the complete mercy of the elements. His writing evokes the sense of absolute claustrophobia that Ari Thor feels at being surrounded by snow and unable to escape, and the reader feels all of this with our protagonist. The book keeps you guessing until the end, culminating in a twist that I, for one, most definitely did not see coming.

This sophisticated piece of Icelandic Noir is perfect for curling up against a cold, dark evening. I’m looking forward to getting started on book 2 – Nightblind!

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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore Review

Well hello! Long time no speak… Since the time of my last blog post, I’ve gotten married, started a new job and jetted off for the most beautiful 2 weeks in Sri Lanka for our honeymoon. Now, we’re back and fully settled into married life, and I have been able to up my reading once more!

I’ve also had a think about what it is I wanted to focus on in this space. I am no beauty queen, I cannot afford to buy new clothes every week, and I don’t feel like I can (or want to) write faithfully about these subjects any more. What I can do, however – and do frequently – is read. Buy books. Add to an ever-increasing TBR list and a Kindle that’s bursting with un-reads. I have an inability to walk past a bookshop without popping in ‘for a browse’ and coming out with a volume I just couldn’t leave behind. Going forward this blog will focus on books: my reviews of them, the books I want to read, general chatter and reflection. So, brew up a cuppa, get cosy in your reading chair and have a read of the first review of 2017: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan.

Book Blind Dates 

I had been desperate to read this book for SUCH a long time! In November, I was at an event at the Biscuit Factory in Ouseburn and happened to walk past their pop-up Forum Books shop (sheer coincidence…ahem). There was a huge basket of ‘blind date’ books just staring at me, and after much deliberation, I picked up this unassuming brown paper package all tied up with string:

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How could you say no to that description?! Turns out I couldn’t, and I was so pleased when I unwrapped it to find Mr Penumbra looking back at me. (Also, on a side note – get yourself along to the Biscuit Factory. Art and books and a lovely coffee shop!)

The Review 

I have often thought that what I needed in my life was a 24 hour bookshop, so of course this book caught my eye! I also love books about books, and bookshops. Sloan’s writing is free-flowing, easy and very engaging; and it’s easy to lose, say, the best part of a day getting completely absorbed in this book. It’s also a funny read, without trying too hard at it. From the moment Mr Penumbra stepped from the shadows and asked Clay Jannon:

“What do you seek in these shelves?” 

I was hooked.

The book follows our protagonist Clay as he joins Mr Penumbra’s bookstore as the night clerk. A strange and mysterious place, frequented by a host of rather eccentric individuals and not many other visitors, it doesn’t take Clay long to stumble upon the bookshop’s secret and get pulled into a whole other world: a place of old books, e-books, and the battle between, and integration of; old and new. With Google alongside ancient texts and coding alongside catalogues, this book is just fun. It made me want to learn to code and write a book and buy a bookshop all at once. I read it in two sittings.

I enjoyed the characters who grace the pages of MP24HB – (it’s a long title to type out!) – in my mind, Penumbra was an eclectic combination of Dumbledore, Gandalf, Merlin from The Sorcerer’s Stone and my own Grandad. Clay is the unlikely hero alongside a modern-day (Google) wizard Kat; and the bookshop patrons are lovable in their quirkiness.

This book also contains one of my favourite lines in literature:

“Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.”

Festina Lente, friends – enjoy!

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Merry Christmas Everyone!

As I write this, I am lounging on the sofa at my mam and dad’s; new book in one hand and a nice big cup of tea in the other. Bliss!

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas, filled with plenty of good food and good company! We had the family round to ours yesterday – our first year hosting! I feel so grown up 😊

Enjoy the rest of your Boxing Day lovely folk!

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Christmassy Times

Well…..didn’t that just go by in a flash!! I hope you’ve all had a lovely, relaxed Christmas with your families and friends! It it was anything at all like mine, you have eaten so much food and drink that it’s a miracle you can still pull yourself off the sofa – or at least, lean forward to the coffee table for one more chocolate 😉

James and I spent Christmas Day going between our families in Sunderland. As my sister had a little girl in May, and James’ sister is currently visiting from Australia with her husband and two boys; it was a really special Christmas for both of us. To top it all off we were both spoilt rotten!

A selection of Christmas goodies
A selection of my Christmas goodies

I’ll not make you sit and go through all of my gifts, but suffice to say that I won’t be running out of perfume and smellies any time soon! I also got some lovely nail varnishes from James, my mam and James’ mam, which will no doubt be making an appearance on the blog in the very near future; and some lovely scented candles. James bought me a gorgeous pair of Kurt Keiger boots which I had been eyeing up earlier in the year; as well as a monster nail technician’s case for all of my nail varnish pots, so I stop leaving them lying around the house!! He’s a good’n 🙂

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Park West

Well, well, well…..how strange it feels to be writing a blog post after a long time off!

It doesn’t feel like two minutes since I was writing about landing in beautiful Canada, yet here I am over a month later writing a little Mani Monday post to get myself back into the swing of things 😀

Tonight’s long awaiting return to Mani Monday is Nails Inc Park West!

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