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Boarding School Brilliance

Atonement - Cecelia - bathing suit - smo
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld



At thirteen, Lee Fiora presents the idea of boarding school to her parents. The smartest student in her public school class, she says that it will be a challenge and will offer her more and better opportunities. She sends for the brochures and applies, even with the knowledge that her parents can't afford the steep tuition... or perhaps that's a reason why she does submit an application. Low and behold, though, Lee receives a generous scholarship and accepts a position at Ault School. Despite admitting (at least to herself) that she was more infatuated with the pictures of what boarding school was like as advertised on the brochures, she leaves home anyway; despite later admitting that her private school fantasies started because of superficial desires planted at the tender age of ten, Lee never voices her doubts, leaving the very mid-western South Bend, Indiana for posh New England.

There, she spends her four years of high school coveting popularity but eschewing attention. While nothing is the way she thought it would be, it's also exactly what she expected. Lee struggles with her school work, socially, and in her relationships with her family. Yet, despite this, she doesn't leave. For four years, Lee fantasizes about what she wants her boarding school life to be like, but, after applying in the first place, she never actively tries to change or better herself or her situation. Instead, she just lets things happen as they will, a passive observer.

Prep is a coming of age novel but one where the main character doesn't really come to any grand - or even minor - understanding of herself or the world. But this is okay. Actually, it's brave on Sitteneld's part and accurate, too. While there's a magical, fictitious aura of realization tied to graduating from high school - private or public, this couldn't be further from the truth. At most, this right of passage is just preparation for the unknown of college and adulthood. Lee Fiora epitomizes this idea. Told from her older self's reflective perspective, looking back at her four years in private school, though, prevents the novel from becoming frustratingly immature and simple as many lesser works that tackle the subject are known to do. What's more, Sittenfeld doesn't present a romanticized account of such an exclusive lifestyle.

While Lee admires her classmates' wealth and the opulence surrounding her, she's never allowed to forget that she's at Ault on scholarship. While she crushes on the same boy all four years of school - even believing herself in love with him, he uses her for sex. The girl doesn't get her prince; her fairytale doesn't come true. No, Lee is always aware of class, and race, and status, and the rules that govern such things. Because of this, even when it's uncomfortable, Prep is honest and insightful - a peak into another world that lets you know, no matter how well you may come to understand it, you'll never belong. It's a blessing, it's a curse, it's a realization that you're never quite prepared for, no matter how wonderful the Prep is. And it's just that: wonderful.

5 out of 5 Stars
Michael and Maria - gray and lime green
Bones are Forever by Kathy Reichs



Is there a death more disturbing than that of a child? This is what Temperance Brennan must confront in Bones are Forever. After discovering the corpses of three dead infants, she and Detective Andrew Ryan travel to Edmonton where they believe their suspect - the babies' mother - was once a prostitute and where she has fled to once again. There, they discover a fourth dead child... and just so happen to be paired up with an old flame of Tempe's. To say the working relationship between Ryan and Ollie Hasty (Royal Mounted Police) is strained is an understatement. To further complicate the case, their suspect has several different aliases and runs off once again, this time going to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories - mining country.

When the suspect's reported pimp follows this ragtag group north, the investigation becomes overshadowed by a drug war. In trying to wade through the various crimes and players in order to determine what and who are actually related to their case, Brennan and Ryan find themselves pulled into an old murder case that was dismissed as accidental, an environmental fight, and the dangerous business of diamonds. If these mines of precious gems aren't enough to contend with, then there's always Brennan and Ryan's personal history and their daughters' drama as well. Combined, this case quickly becomes a slippery slope capable of felling even the most confident of professionals. Before it can be solved, it must be survived, no easy feat.

Bones are Forever is the fifteenth book in Reichs' Temperance Brennan series, and, thankfully, it falls into the one of the two possible categories that always makes the story more compelling: it's set in Canada. Canada means Detective Andrew Ryan, the series' second most important and interesting character. While he can be mentioned and has even appeared in North Carolina set books, this isn't always guaranteed, and his absence is always felt deeply. This is because, of all the series' supporting characters, Ryan shares the richest, most complicated history with Brennan. Plus, he always adds a spark of sex when present, and when is that ever a bad thing?

But Canada also presents Reichs with the opportunity to share of places and words (French) less explored by readers, setting those novels apart from their American contemporaries (both those by Reichs herself and others who pen scientific procedural mysteries). As for this story itself, it further upped the unfamiliar ante by focusing on the often ignored indigenous culture of Northern Canada. Also, as previously mentioned, the list of victims in this case is topped with the four innocent lives of dead babies. The deaths of children are always more poignant, and this makes for a more haunting, more passionate read. While, obviously, the goal is always for the murderer to be apprehended, this is even more so the case when children are involved, ratcheting up the characters' determination and the readers' investment. This is certainly the case in Bones are Forever, resulting in Reichs' strongest outing in several recent novels.

3 out of 5 Stars

Embrace the Weird!

Anne - Laying Down - Dreaming
The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp



"Embrace the weird." This is Sutter Keely's life motto. A senior in high school, he believes he has everything figured out - not college, plans, and his future but the important things, the big things: philosophies on love and laughter, beauty and business, power and people. Oh, and he can mix one hell of a martini, too. Sutter has it all as well. He has wheels, paid for by his part time job with Bob, his advice guru, at a men's clothing store, folding shirts and selling pants to clueless yuppies. It keeps him cruising, and it keeps him in whiskey and seven. He has a ton of friends but especially his best friend, Ricky, a 'spanktacular, fat' girlfriend, and a killer, mega-watt, gapped-tooth smile. So what if his mom's disinterested, his sister superficial, and his dad absent. Life is just about perfect for Sutter... even if he is flunking Algebra II. But, then, a few tips of the flask and a couple of beers later, it's not. His girlfriend dumps him, and his best friend decides to lay off the whiskey and weed - it's just not special anymore when it's the norm. So, what does Sutter do? He gets his weird on and wakes up in someone's yard, his car nowhere in sight. This is how he meets Aimee Finecky: dorky, shy, sweet, pushover, socially awkward Aimee Finecky. They drive her paper route together in an effort to locate his car, and, in the process, strike up an unlikely connection. Lunch leads to a party, a party to kissing, and kissing to a prom invite. Sutter just can't find it in himself to tell Aimee no, to deny himself, and, soon afterwards, she's floating suspended in the spectacular now with him.

Sutter is an entirely honest portrayal of a teenager, not fitting into any typical high school role typically portrayed in fiction. While on the surface, he could be classified as a teenage wasteland: no plans beyond his next laugh, his next whiskey fortified 7Up, but he's too smart (despite his grades) and too thoughtful and introspective (despite his claims to the contrary) to be dismissed as a kid halfway to being an alcoholic. Oh, he certainly has substance abuse issues, but Sutter's also a walking contradiction as well. He attempts to tell a mother that her son is unhappy, yet he won't confront of his own mother about their broken family or even admit that he wishes some stranger would have done the same for him when he was a little boy. He takes up Aimee Finecky like a project, insisting he's just trying to infuse a little confidence in the girl rather than admitting he grasped onto her as a balm to his own wounded self-esteem, trying to fix her rather than facing his own problems. And he claims to be the life of the party - sometimes even the only one living at all - when he's really hiding from his life by partying. While those around Sutter slowly realize this, he continues on in denial, making him an unsympathetic yet still likeable guy. Even though the hope is that Sutter will eventually figure it out, reality is the acceptance that the best he can offer is awareness once it's already too late. It might be spectacular, but it's also frightening, and real, and inevitable. Yet, while it lasted, it was beautiful, too -  beautifully broken. For once, an author doesn't attempt to put his character back together either. Tharp just accepts and presents Sutter the way he really is, and we are all, in our own ways, better off for having known him while the now lasted.

Five out of Five Stars

Deja Vu in Phoenix

Atonement - Robbie - flower field
Driven by James Sallis



A different name, a different city, and a different life, but nothing really changes for Driver. For him, the lull is almost just time suspended. Eventually, it will begin again, and, when it does, the past will become his present once more. Six years after he left Los Angeles, this is exactly what happens to Driver. As he unsuspectingly walks down the sidewalk with his fiancee, two men attack. Driver quickly dispatches of them - instinctively, but, when the dust settles, his girl is dead, and his fresh start is no more. He doesn't know who is gunning for him or why, but the reasons mean little to him, because their results seemed inevitable. He immediately returns to what he knows: driving and drops out of the life he created for himself. The men keep coming, and Driver continues to dispense of them. Either they'll eventually get him or they'll run out of people to send. Although Driver doesn't worry about the future, he doesn't sit back and wait for the next attack either. He starts investigating his pursuers, tracking the money used to hire his would-be assassins until he determines who wants him - and who wanted his fiancee - dead. This time, though, he doesn't fight alone. Despite leaving his once new life behind, he takes a friend with connections along with him, and he meets new acquaintances who help him along the way, too. But it's all temporary - the fight, the friends, the place, because he drives. And he leaves, too.

While Driver is essentially the same man he always was, he's changed as well. It's not necessarily growth, though. Rather, he's still the chameleon, reflecting those around him, and, in Driven, he has surrounded himself with different kinds of people. The novel isn't as dark as its predecessor either. This is portrayed by the setting. Almost all of the attacks upon Driver, this time, take place during the day. In turn, this detracts from the work's sinister quality, along with the fact that the attacks aren't personal; they're just business. For most of the novel, the man who hired the would-be assassins is a mere shadow, there but not actually physically present - a phantom. This removes much of the immediacy from the action. Driven still features Sallis' detached approach to violence. Driver doesn't mull over his actions - theorize or contemplate them beforehand or worry and try to justify them afterwards; he just does them. There's no right or wrong in this world, and that's a refreshing change of pace. It also makes the violence just that much more potent, because it's unexpected and then done, Driver quickly moving on to the next unrelated thought, meal, drive. Because of this, it's not shocking that the book lacks real resolution. Instead, it's just a fleeting moment in someone's life, yet Sallis makes it clear that all people have these moments - sometimes even the same one over and over. Perhaps the details change, but the results are always the same. And that is what's lacking in Driven as compared to its prequel: the details just aren't as compelling

Two out of Five Stars

Tell Me Lies, Sweet Little Lies

Isolde
Two Truths and a Lie: A Lying Game Novel by Sara Shepard



It's one thing to accept the fact that your twin's best friend's brother is also your twin's killer when he has run away and you've never known him, let alone met him; it's a whole different matter, however, to confront your twin's murderer in her dark bedroom, alone, late at night. When Emma - still posing as Sutton - sees Thayer Vega for the first time, he's agitated and hostile, desperate and menacing. Even after Thayer's arrested for breaking and entering into the Mercer home, Emma can't relax. Nobody knows that her sister is dead, so no one is investigating Thayer for her murder. Even though she and Ethan continue their own search for the truth, Emma faces pressure from Sutton's friends to help clear Thayer, from Sutton's parents for some honesty, and from the police for what they suspect was her nefarious contributions to Thayer's disappearance and subsequent return and arrest. Piled on top of all this stress, Emma still senses that someone is following her, Laurel and Mads are angry with her for what they believe her role was in Thayer's legal trouble, and the members of the lying game club are ready to orchestrate their next prank. The one bright spot in Emma's portrayal of Sutton is Ethan... though she's not quite sure what they are to one another, but this is quickly complicated even further when Ethan becomes Laurel's lying club target of choice. In Tucson just a month, and Emma's already plunging off a rocky cliff... or maybe that's what happened to Sutton.

So, why did the girl read Two Truth and a Lie? Why, to get to the next novel in the series, of course. Now, while this is obviously a facetious question and answer, there is some truth to it, too. Although her books entertain, Shepard certainly has a modus operandi when it comes to her writing style. Because of this, Two Truths and a Lie feels like one, big red herring - a fun one but a red herring nonetheless. This is because, no matter how guilty a suspect may look during the course of a novel, readers automatically know that everything supposedly proving his or her guilt is nothing but misunderstandings. By the end of the book, the suspect will be cleared and a new shadow of suspicion cast upon someone else. So, in Two Truths and a Lie's case, Thayer is never believable as Sutton's killer. While some facts are revealed in the course of trying to paint Thayer as the guilty party, much of the book is a runaround, a means to get to the next offering (and non-guilty suspect) in the series. Thankfully, it's an easy, quick read. Otherwise, it would be rather frustrating to devote a lot of one's time to something with little to no consequence. Furthermore, the schizo narrating style - from Emma to Sutton and then back again - is still less than desirable, and the girls' characterizations are really starting to become ridiculously polarizing, making them appear like caricatures and everyone else like fools for not realizing their obvious differences. While, granted, this is escapism reading material and not classic literature, at least make the destination somewhere enviable. Nobody wants to settle for Florida when they can go to the Riviera.

Two out of Five Stars

A New Frontier of Creole Wilderness

P&P - Elizabeth - standing in breeze on
Queen of Swords by Sara Donati



It took more than a year for Luke and Hannah to find and rescue Jennet, to dispose of her abductor. After so long in captivity, the Bonner siblings had no idea in what condition they would find their wife and sister, respectively. No matter what, though, they'd be able to finally go home, to leave the sea behind, and heal together at Lake in the Clouds. Only, there's more to do than merely save Jennet and dispose of her kidnapper; unbeknownst to Luke and Hannah, when Jennet was taken from them, she was carrying a child, a child that she, upon fearing for the baby's life, placed in the care of a stranger. To recover their son, their nephew, Luke, Jennet, and Hannah begin the second leg of their journey, traveling first to Pensacola and then to New Orleans. There, a maelstrom of complications await them, including the bemusing Creole culture, disease, and a looming battle between the Americans and the British, the war of 1812 raging around them. In order to be reunited with baby Nathaniel, the Bonners find themselves pitted against one of the first families of New Orleans - the cruel and sadistic Honore Porterin and his equally as crazed grandmother - and depending upon the kindness of old and new friends and strangers alike. It's a whole new wilderness for the Bonners to conquer, one that couldn't be further from the endless forest they know and love so well.

From the very first pages of Queen of Swords, adrenaline starts pumping, and it doesn't let up. There are no lulls in this novel. Rather, it's constant action and meaningful suspense. While obviously a strength of the book, its true genius is in its setting. New Orleans, despite its balmy weather, breathed new life into this series. Though always enjoyable, the change in location allowed Donati to explore a new culture, putting the unique Bonner perspective to use in interpreting not only the relationships between Creoles and both Americans and the British but also their slaves, free blacks, free blacks who own slaves, quadroons, Indians, and those Indians of mixed race. Plus, New Orleans gave her a playground of new characters to introduce. Finally, by removing Luke, Jennet, and Hannah from everything they knew, the characters were allowed to grow, especially the two women. Jennet grew up, and Hannah was finally able to make peace with her past. She did this by moving on, by letting go, by returning to herself while rediscovering who she was, things that just didn't seem possible back in Paradise. By relocating the story to New Orleans, at least temporarily, Donati was also able to quickly and efficiently progress the story for the rest of the Bonners back in New York as well, relating what Luke, Jennet, and Hannah missed through letters. Combined, everything sets up for the next phase of this family's tale, now properly spiced with a little foreign flair and fresh blood as everyone reunites in The Endless Forest.

Four out of Five Stars

And the Pack is Back

P&P - Elizabeth - standing in breeze on
Seizure by Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs



Pirate treasure! At one point or another in every child's life, they fantasize about eye patches and parrots, swords, gold coins, danger, and intrigue. Only, these dreams usually take the shape of a little boy or girl's make-believe world, not the summer adventure of four teenage friends. However, this is exactly the case for Tory and her fellow virals. Faced with looming financial cuts due to the economic recession, the teens' parents are about to lose their jobs. LIRI will be shut down; the animals - including Coop's family - will be abandoned or sold off, their protection gone; and Tory's pack will be disbanded and separated, their powers an even greater danger and unknown without the support of each other. The friends scheme - the lottery?, bank robbing? - in what seems to be a futile attempt to save their homes and friendship, but then Tory stumbles upon the lore of Anne Bonny and her still yet to be found buried treasure. It's just waiting for someone to find it, to follow the clues left by the famed, local, female buccaneer, and Tory is convinced that the loot is the only way she and her friends can stay together in Charleston. This sets in motion a fantastic sequence of events which include theft, near death experiences, breaking and entering, kidnapping, and murder. Anne Bonny and her fellow pirates would be proud.

It cannot be said that Seizure doesn't present an action-adventure packed punch. The novel is fast-paced and exciting, exactly what one would expect of a treasure hunt. Yet, it's all too easy, too obvious as well. Put aside the fact that the entire book revolves around, of all things, pirate treasure. That in and of itself is just a symptom of the larger problem. While it is a staple of young adult novels to largely exclude adult characters, especially parents, it is hard to believe that four teenage characters would be smarter and more capable than their adult counterparts. Granted, the virals are aided by their mutant senses and abilities, but the entire tale is just a little too perfect. The consequences are only felt by the villains, while Tory and her friends not only escape unscathed; they also get the predictable heroes' deus-ex-machina ending. Add to this the fact that all four virals are super intelligent, super researchers, and super lucky, and the story becomes just that much more unbelievable, not in a fantasy/supernatural way but in a roll your eyes, 'yeah whatever' improbability, especially when, though capable of discovering long-lost treasure, Tory can't comprehend basic human emotions and their origins (jealousy because of competing crushes). With all this said (and despite my complaints), Seizure is a fun and entertaining read. But it's also pure escapism, so check your common sense and reality at the book shelf before digging in.

Three out of Five Stars

Two Places, One Name, Too Many Murders

P&P - Elizabeth - standing in breeze on
Broken Harbor by Tana French



The perfect family: a very much in love husband and wife who were once high school sweethearts, their adorable daughter, and their precocious son. They live on a cul-de-sac, in a beautiful suburban home by the sea. Friends and family, laughter and play, the Spains are happy - absolutely, positively happy. Or are they? The children are found murdered in their beds, the parents stabbed in a blood drenched war zone that was once a bright and cheerful kitchen. As high profile of a case as there could be, Michael - "Scorcher" - Kennedy is assigned to the homicides in Brianstown, along with his temporary, on probation partner, Ritchie Curran, who has never before worked a murder. It doesn't take long for this seemingly straightforward situation to crack and fray, however.

Brianstown was once Broken Harbor, the very same town where Scorcher's family vacationed when he was a child and where his mother killed herself. The picturesque suburb is a shoddy, half-built, and largely abandoned development that is falling down around its residents' once hopeful and now dashed dreams. What was supposed to be a quadruple murder is actually only a triple homicide, for the mother's barely hanging on - something that should be a positive, but, even if she lives, she'll wake to a life in tatters. And, finally, circumstances aren't as cheery for the Spains as first portrayed: the father lost his job, the family's broke and waiting for the bank to take their home, and, speaking of the house, there's something strange going on under the Spain's roof; there are holes in the walls and baby monitors strewn all throughout the otherwise spotless abode.

No matter what the situation, French always presents unique, haunting mysteries in her books. While the Irish culture plays a role in this - especially for American readers, the truly compelling aspect of Broken Harbor - and this is a trait of all its predecessors, too - is how everyman the characters are. A writer who pens her mysteries with people in mind rather than the plot, a formula, or science, French delivers both victims and perpetrators familiar to readers. The Spains in their trials and tribulations, their predictableness and their peculiarities could be any young family. Toss in detectives who, rather than depending upon technology and specialized training, talk to piece together the story. They talk to family and friends, suspects, the surviving victim, and, perhaps most importantly, they talk to each other. Sure, there are techs who play a role in the investigation, but the evidence produced from these more scientific approaches merely compliments the relationships cultivated by Scorcher and the rookie Curran. In addition, the detectives' back stories dovetail with the mystery, lending more layers to an already complicated situation. Together, what French accomplishes with this recipe is an investigation readers can follow and participate in, versus being dependent upon an author's explanations and last minute, ah-ha reveals. What's more, Broken Harbor is a novel that will stay with readers long after its placed back on the shelf, because readers could be any of these characters - the detectives, the victims, even the killer, and that's frighteningly fascinating.

Four out of Five Stars

To Serve and Shoot - Raylan Givens

P&P - Elizabeth - standing in breeze on
Pronto by Elmore Leonard



I approached this novel backwards. Having already watched (and adored) four seasons of Justified, Pronto needed to match my expectations. It didn't. Perhaps this isn't fair, and it certainly isn't the usual case when a novel collides with its screen version. But neither is Justified a straight-up adaptation of Pronto. Rather, it is the first Leonard novel to feature Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, Justified's one-of-a-kind lead character. From his cowboy hat to his affinity for ice cream, his unique interpretation of the law to his almost insightful handling of both criminals and guns, Raylan is an extremely recognizable and memorable character, and these traits are on full display in Pronto. If it had been the show that inspired the book, it could be said that Leonard nailed Raylan, only the roles were reversed, and that's where the similarities between the two entities end.

Pronto is actually the story of a Miami bookie, Harry Arno. Set up for skimming by the FBI in the hope that Harry will be forced to roll on the mob and become a witness, Arno does just about everything he's not supposed to. He spills on the FBI to the mob (though he's ignored), gives his U.S. Marshall protective custody the slip, and then flees to Italy on the money he actually was skimming, though, by the time he runs, the price on his head has nothing to do with his sport booking anymore. Instead, it's a mafia pissing match - two men in the organization trying to rise, while a third wants to stay on top. So, the mob follows Harry to Italy, as does the law in the shape of a lanky man in a cowboy hat: Raylan Givens. Harry's not worried, though; he's lonely, so he hires a former soldier-for-hire turned street corner vendor as his jack-of-all-trades and sends for his 25 years younger girlfriend who's still back in Miami. What ensues is chaos.

Chaos is fine. I like chaos. Gunfights and mafia machinations are fun but not when they are the direct result of an inept, egotistical, oftentimes drunk fool. Harry Arno is no hero, antihero, or lead character, yet it's his voice most often lent to the book and his actions which put the entire plot in motion. Very Arlo-esque (Raylan's father on Justified), Harry should have been a supporting character, nothing more. He's utterly unsympathetic, so he has absolutely no rooting value. Because the world would be a better (more interesting) place without him, the novel has no relevance. You don't care if the mob whacks him, so you don't care if Raylan saves him. This makes for a boring read until moments when other, more compelling characters are spotlighted in some kind of conflict.

With this said, though, it must be noted what a unique voice and tone Leonard presents in this book. His style is extremely conversational and unstructured, the abbreviated thoughts and incomplete sentences illustrative of the work's mood and setting, yet, at the same time, jarring if one's not used to such lazy and improper speaking habits. While I can see why Leonard was so successful and revered, and while I am quite partial to Justified and Raylan Givens, Pronto is just not my cup of espresso.

Two out of Five Stars

11 Down, ? To Go - Stunning

P&P - Elizabeth - standing in breeze on
Stunning: A Pretty Little Liars Novel by Sara Shepard



Sex, lies, drugs, drag, and murder: no, this isn't rock n' roll; this is Rosewood.

It has been a year and a half since Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer received their first text message from A. Now, two A's later, they're back at the same church where they said goodbye to Fake-Ali, Their-Ali, and yet, again, they're connected to the murder victim. In fact, until the woman was shot, they believed her to be their latest tormentor, threatening the little girl Emily gave away for adoption, tricking Hanna into stAlking her ex's new girlfriend and making Hanna look a fool in the process, blackmailing Aria with the knowledge of her boyfriend's cross-dresser of a father, and sabotaging Spencer's chances of getting into her Princeton eating club of choice by dropping a little acid and Ritalin into Spencer's "pot"luck brownies. With each and every single plot against the pretty little liars, A's game seems to become just that much more dangerous.

And perhaps that's the most interesting aspect of this series. Despite the fact that Stunning is the eleventh Pretty Little Liars novel, it's always fascinating to see what A's going to dish out next. Unlike the television series, the A in the books is less dependent upon expensive stunts when it comes to terrorizing the girls, not only making her... or him... more believable but also more sinister as well. Rather than creepy dolls and custom Magic 8 Balls, book A uses knowledge of the liars and Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer's inability to not put themselves in dicey situations to manipulate and harass the four friends. Shepard also does a better job of balancing the characters - equally featuring and torturing the girls. While it's natural for readers to have favorites, Shepard seemingly doesn't. No one liar is more central to the story than the others, and it never seems like one is ignored by A or given lighter punishment. It's also amazing to witness how charmed the  girls' lives still are despite A, to see just how they're going to wiggle out of their latest spots of trouble. Despite the novels' darker nature, this sense of invincibility both adds a touch of innocence, resulting in escapism for readers, and it detracts from the books' veracity and, consequently, their reading value.

3 out of 5 Stars

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