Review of Fairest Audiobook, by Gail Carson Levine

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Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Read and Sung by Sarah Naughton and the Full Cast Family

Music by Todd Hobin

Full Cast Audio, 2007. Unabridged.

Review written January 28, 2008.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #2, Audiobooks.

Here’s a delightful audiobook well worth listening to.

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, has written a wonderful retelling of Snow White.  Aza lives in Ayortha, where everyone loves to sing.  She’s quite an eyesore, with her pale skin and blood-red lips, but she is blessed with a magnificent voice.

The Full Cast Audio production of this book advertised that it has more songs than a Broadway musical. This is the perfect tale to listen to, since music is such an important part of the story.

My expectations were extremely high.  Full Cast Audio always does an excellent job, using so many actors for their productions.  The book itself was wonderful, and I was looking forward to hearing it done with music.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I was a little bit disappointed.  Unfortunately, the Playaway version that I listened to did not have good sound quality (maybe the fault of my headphones?) and tended to static any time anyone hit a high note—definitely detracted from the enjoyment, though that wasn’t the fault of the production.  I think I will want to try it again as a Book on CD, because it was good enough to want to listen to again.

After reading about how wonderful Aza’s voice was, perhaps it was inevitable that I’d be a bit disappointed in any real person trying to play Aza. (Maybe I would have been happy with Charlotte Church?) Sarah Naughton’s voice is definitely nice—it just didn’t quite fit the build-up from the story as being the best voice in the kingdom. In fact, I thought the singing voice of the actress playing Aza’s sister Areta was sweeter.

There were indeed many, many songs, and they were nice—but I wish there had been a few catchier tunes. Maybe it had more songs than a Broadway musical, but the songs weren’t as memorable as you’d find in a Broadway musical.

Still—those are just quibbles. The fact is, for a recorded book, this production is tremendous. They didn’t just read the book; they used many different actors to read the book, and they performed all the songs in a book about music. This recorded book is something special.

I should add that although I was slightly disappointed at first in Aza’s singing voice (though I liked her speaking voice), the Prince’s voice melted my heart. And Queen Ivy’s voice was perfect—her character showed through with every word and every note.

This production would be a wonderful choice for a family trip in the car. You’ve got a compelling story with music to keep everyone entertained. If the kids have heard the story of Snow White, you’ll have fun discussing how the story is the same, yet different. You can discuss other issues that come up. (How important is beauty? Why did the King love Ivy?) In this case, the recorded book offers even more than the original, because it has music.

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Review of Greater Estimations, by Bruce Goldstone

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Greater Estimations

by Bruce Goldstone

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008.  32 pages.

Starred review.

2009 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Nonfiction

This book is fascinating.  I brought it to a staff meeting, and my co-workers couldn’t resist looking through the pictures.  I’d enjoy doing a program around this book.

Greater Estimations presents photographs of large quantities of things — rubber duckies, popcorn, parachuters, honeybees, plastic animals, and many other things — and shows the reader strategies for estimating how many there are.  The author also talks about estimating length, height (of buildings), weight (of dogs), area, and volume.

This book can capture your attention for a long time, and if it gets you curious about quantity, the author will have achieved his goal.  He also teaches you ways to satisfy that curiosity on your own.

I find myself wishing that Bruce Goldstone had placed some answers in the back of the book.  I do appreciate his point that estimation is NOT about getting exact answers.  But I do wish he’d given feedback on a few more pages to have some idea if my ability to estimate was improving as a result of his hints.

Anyway, in life you don’t get answers given to you.  This book gives you tools to help you figure out an approximate answer to numerical questions all by yourself.

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Review of Rapunzel’s Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale

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Rapunzel’s Revenge

by Shannon and Dean Hale

Illustrated by Nathan Hale

Bloomsbury, 2008.  144 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #2, Teen Graphic Novels

http://www.shannonhale.com/

http://www.spacestationnathan.com/

http://www.bloomsburyusa.com/

I am a huge Shannon Hale fan.  So though I normally would not have rushed to buy a graphic novel, when I heard that she had written one with her husband (The artist, though having the same last name, is not related.), I simply had to buy it.

This wasn’t up there in the best-thing-I’ve-ever-read territory like her novels, but all the same, this book is completely delightful.  Though, come to think of it, it’s the best graphic novel I’ve ever read.  (Don’t tell my son!)

Rapunzel’s Revenge tells the tale of Rapunzel, set in the old West.  Rapunzel is no wimpy princess, waiting for a prince to set her free.  When she learns at twelve years old what “Mother Gothel” has done to her real mother, and how she terrorizes the countryside, Rapunzel confronts her.  She’s promptly placed in a tower made from a giant tree that Mother Gothel made with her growth magic.  The same magic begins to affect Rapunzel’s hair.

There are some fun things in the illustrations.  I love the three books Rapunzel has in the tower:  Girls Who Get Saved and the Princes Who Save Them, How to Make a Twig Bonnet, and There’s Always Bird Watching.

With nothing to do in the tower, she practices her lasso skills by using her ridiculously long hair, braided into rope.

Finally, after she turns sixteen, her hair is long enough for her to use it to escape her prison.  It’s after her escape that she sees a traveling adventurer who heard about the beautiful maiden in a tower.  She points him to the tower and tells him the maiden is slightly deaf, so he should be sure to yell as loud as he can.

On the way back to Gothel’s villa to rescue her mother, Rapunzel becomes a vigilante, helping people with her amazing lasso of hair.  She falls in with a rogue named Jack who’s been having some trouble with giants.  Rapunzel convinces Jack to help her rescue her mother and bring justice to the countryside, which has been sucked dry by Gothel’s magic.

Here’s a girl who doesn’t need saving!  This imaginative adventure has a heroine you can cheer for.

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www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/rapunzels_revenge.html

Review of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox

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Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Harcourt, 2008.  40 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #4 Picture Books

http://www.memfox.net/

http://www.harcourtbooks.com/

I saw this book listed on more than one end-of-the-year Best of 2008 list.  I’ve loved Helen Oxenbury ever since my 20-year-old son was a toddler who memorized the text in her Tom and Pippo books and “read” the books along with me.  Mem Fox I discovered later, but have an extra-special fondness for her books, particularly Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!  http://www.sonderbooks.com/PictureBooks/harriet.html

So I simply had to check this book out.  I was completely enchanted.  I will definitely be using this book at my very next Mother Goose Time for babies and parents.  The book is only a few months old, and already I find myself thinking of it as a classic no parent of a baby should be without.

There was one little baby who was born far away

And another who was born on the very next day.

And both of these babies, as everyone knows,

had ten little fingers

and ten little toes.

Mind you, the picture on the page with “had ten little fingers and ten little toes” shows baby hands and feet so precious you just want to eat them up!  (No one draws babies so utterly adorably yet lifelike as Helen Oxenbury.)

The book goes on, in the sweet rhyming cadence, to tell of babies from all over the world.

As each set of two new babies is introduced, the earlier babies look on as a kind of adorable chorus.

The final stanza is what clinches this book as such a delightful exploration between parent and baby:

But the next baby born was truly divine,

a sweet little child who was mine, all mine.

And this little baby, as everyone knows,

has ten little fingers,

ten little toes,

and three little kisses   [Here are the earlier babies are laughing in anticipation!]

on the tip of its nose.

What can I say?  I think this is going to get tucked in with the next baby shower gift I give.  Absolutely delightful!  Go to your library and look at the illustrations, if you don’t believe me!

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www.sonderbooks.com/Picture_Books/ten_little_fingers.html

Review of Let It Snow

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Let It Snow

Three Holiday Romances

by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Speak (Penguin), 2008.  352 pages.

Starred Review

http://www.sparksflyup.com/

http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/

http://www.laurenmyracle.com/

www.penguin.com/teens

Okay, I’m in the mood for holiday reading, and this book of three intertwined holiday romances was completely delightful.  I began reading during a dentist appointment, and found when I got home, my recovery demanded further reading.

The three stories are all teen romances, delightfully told.  John Green’s story, told from the guy’s perspective, is in the middle, and makes a nice subtle change from the other two, but I loved all three.

Maureen Johnson tells the  first story, where Jubilee Donegal is on a train to visit her grandparents in Florida instead of at her boyfriend’s big family Christmas Eve Smorgasbord.  Her parents were arrested in a riot over collectible Flobie Santa Village buildings, and Jubilee got sent to Florida.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t get far before the train is stopped by snow.  She’s in a car with a group of cheerleaders off to a cheerleading competition and a cute guy obsessed with trying to call his girlfriend (and failing).  What can she do except go out through the snow and try to get to the Waffle House she sees across the highway?

What follows is a delightful story of adventure and eye-opening revelations and, yes, romance.

John Green’s story involves a guy and two friends trying to get through the snow to the Waffle House, where their friend, the store manager, is telling a hysterical tale about a group of cheerleaders needing “help” working on cheers.  He needs them to bring a Twister game, but if they take too long, someone else’s friends might beat them to it.  Once again, things don’t happen as they expect.

In Lauren Myracle’s story, we see the ex-girlfriend of the guy on the train, despairing because he didn’t show up and he didn’t even call.  Meanwhile, her friends need her to do a little something for them — and they don’t want to hear that there’s been another “crisis.”

The stories dovetail beautifully.  They are all funny and sweet and wonderfully entertaining.  Definitely recommended holiday reading!

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Review of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling

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The Tales of Beedle the Bard

by J. K. Rowling

Translated from the Ancient Runes by Hermione Granger

Commentary by Albus Dumbledore

Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations by J. K. Rowling

Children’s High Level Group in association with Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2008.  111 pages.

Starred Review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #3, Children’s Fiction

J. K. Rowling is truly a master of mixing the light-hearted with the profound.  This book collects five original fairy tales.  They truly feel like folktales, with the twist that they are set in the Wizarding World created by J. K. Rowling.  She’s captured the simplicity and magic of folktales, with her signature touch of the bizarre.

I wasn’t crazy about the commentary by Dumbledore.  It felt a little like trying to drive home the moral too hard, and I get tired of hearing that Malfoys have been Muggle-haters for centuries.  However, there are some delightful and hilarious touches that made me laugh out loud.  For example, Dumbledore says that The Tale of the Three Brothers was the story he requested most often at bedtime as a child.  “This frequently led to arguments with my younger brother, Aberforth, whose favorite story was ‘Grumble the Grubby Goat.'”

Another example is where she tells about Beatrix Bloxam, who tried to turn the tales into something pure and precious.  “Mrs. Bloxam’s tale has met the same response from generations of Wizarding children:  uncontrollable retching, followed by an immediate demand to have the book taken from them and mashed into pulp.”

The proceeds from the sale of this book go to The Children’s High Level Group, which is one more reason to buy a copy of this delightful collection of tales.  I am going to try to talk my son into letting me read him the tales at bedtime.  You can’t outgrow these stories.

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Review of Tell Me No Lies, by Ellyn Bader and Peter T. Pearson

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Tell Me No Lies

How to Stop Lying to Your Partner — and Yourself — in the 4 Stages of Marriage

by Ellyn Bader, PhD, and Peter T. Pearson, PhD,

with Judith D. Schwartz

Skylight Press (St. Martin’s Press), New York, 2000.  241 pages.

Starred review.

I think of myself as a truthful person.  So I was a little offended by the first paragraph of this book.

“Everybody lies.  Friends lie to friends.  Children lie to their parents.  Politicians lie to constituents.  And, certainly, husbands and wives lie to each other.”

However, they do point out that these lies definitely don’t start out mean-spirited.  For example, classic lies of the Honeymoon Stage are “I like everything about you.” and “We like all the same things.”

The authors show common lies in the four stages of marriage and how they can lead to the marriage getting off track.  Their explanations ring true.  I was able to realize that the belief that I always tell the whole truth was definitely a lie I was telling myself.

They define four stages of marriage as The Honeymoon, Emerging Differences, Freedom, and Together as Two.  They explain the pitfalls of lies in each stage:

“Certain types of lies arise at different points in a marriage in response to the specific challenges of each stage.  Deception will stunt development in each stage, creating an emotional gridlock that leaves both partners stuck.  We call these stalled points “Detours and Dead Ends.”  From the Honeymoon, you can veer into The Dark Side of the Honeymoon.  When deceit obscures your Emerging Differences, you can end up in the Seething Stalemate.  The failure to negotiate independence can thrust you into Freedom Unhinged.  The only way to get on track is to confront the truth.”

The authors don’t place all the blame on the person doing the lying.  They include a chapter on “The Lie Invitee” explaining why there are times when we really don’t want to hear the truth.

This is a fascinating and helpful look at what makes an open and honest marriage.  You can’t really know one another if you don’t tell the truth to each other.  If you are beginning to feel distant and “so different” from each other, maybe it’s time to take a look at what truths about yourself you are hiding from your partner or maybe from yourself as well.

This book is full of good advice for building a good marriage.  It can also help you understand the dynamics of what went wrong if your marriage falls apart.

“Intimate relationships are difficult, despite what cultural myths would have us believe, and every couple will encounter some tough situations.  The grit to withstand those challenges — and to keep your marriage growing and alive — requires that you find the courage to voice the truth.  And the resolve to listen to it.”

Here are more helpful quotations from this book:

http://sonderbooks.com/sonderquotes/?s=Bader+Pearson

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www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/tell_me_no_lies.html

Review of Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale, Audiobook

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Book of a Thousand Days

by Shannon Hale

read by Chelsea Mixon and the Full Cast Family

Full Cast Audio, 2008.  6 compact discs, 7 hours, 30 minutes.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009:  #1, Audiobooks

http://www.fullcastaudio.com/

http://www.squeetus.com/

When I first read Book of a Thousand Days ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/book_of_a_thousand_days.html ), I wasn’t quite ready to declare it the best book I’ve ever read.  Could I really put it ahead of my long time declared favorites, The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/bluecastle.html ), and The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley ( http://www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/BlueSword.html ), or ahead of Shannon Hale’s own The Goose Girl (http://www.sonderbooks.com/YAFiction/goosegirl.html)?

Well, after listening to Full Cast Audio’s fabulous production, I can say without a moment’s hesitation that this is by far the best audiobook I have ever listened to, and the story itself is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.  Okay, I’m still equivocating with the print books (simply because of having so many so much loved old favorites), but in the middle of listening to this book, I found myself gushing like a teenager to my son that this is the “best book in the world”!

Full Cast Audio surpassed itself with this production.  The voices suited the characters perfectly.  I especially liked Lady Saren’s voice, seeming timid and tentative at the beginning, but growing in strength.  Chelsea Nixon, who read Dashti’s voice, was wonderfully expressive.  They even included the snatches of the Healing Songs that Dashti sings throughout the book.

Lady Saren has been condemned to be sealed into a tower for seven years because she refuses to marry Lord Khasar.  Her father decrees this on the very day that Dashti the mucker maid showed up to be Saren’s new lady’s maid.  So Dashti enters the tower with Lady Saren, and their adventures begin.

Saren is terribly afraid of something.  So afraid that when Khan Tegus, the man Saren secretly promised to marry, shows up outside the tower, Saren makes Dashti speak with him, pretending to be Saren.

This book is a magnificent piece of writing.  All of the growth and development is done gradually and masterfully drawn out.  Dashti grows as a servant and as a person.  She grows in her mastery of the magic of the Healing Songs.  She grows as she figures out what is really going on with the evil Lord Khasar.  Meanwhile, Saren grows as Dashti calms her fears.  And the love story blossoms, slowly, gradually, beautifully.

When my CD player finished the book and cycled back to the beginning of the last CD, I found I couldn’t bring myself to eject it, and I’m listening to that last wonderful section all over again.  I don’t want it to be over!

A magical and beautiful book.

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Review of Crazy for God, by Frank Schaeffer

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Crazy for God

How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back

by Frank Schaeffer

Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2007.  417 pages.

Starred review.

Frank Schaeffer is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, founders of L’Abri and famous Christian writers.  In college, I read Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, What Is a Family?, The Tapestry, Affliction, and Common Sense Christian Living.  I bought a set of The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, but still haven’t read any of it!

My father was a fan of Francis Schaeffer’s writings, and my mother a huge fan of Edith Schaeffer’s.  After reading Edith’s books, I dreamed of living that sort of life myself — living as a family in Europe, reaching searching souls for God!  It sounded like a dream existence.

Frank Schaeffer (known as Franky then) did come and speak at my college, Biola University, when I was a student.  I think he was promoting A Time for Anger, and he came across as very angry indeed.  I pretty much dismissed what he had to say, and figured he must be a typical rebellious preacher’s kid, though I was still enthralled by his parents’ works.  His mother spoke at a Ladies’ Tea at Biola, promoting her book Common Sense Christian Living, and I was further enraptured.

I should add that I still think of her way of looking at suffering, as presented in Affliction, as a wonderful paradigm for dealing with why God allows suffering.

In Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer outlines his life growing up in Switzerland, his later involvement in the founding of the religious right political movement in America, and his search for some kind of peace.

In a lot of ways, I found his quest mirroring my own.  I too grew up in a rather unusual Christian community — a family of thirteen children.  I too ended up with liberal political views.  Although I still attend an evangelical church, it is a church about community and much less hung up on exact statements of faith.  It sounds very similar in attitude to the Greek Orthodox church where Frank Schaeffer has found a home.  Like him, I find myself thinking of Christianity as a “journey to God, wherein no one is altogether instantly ‘saved’ or ‘lost’ and nothing is completely resolved in this life (and perhaps not in the next).”  My belief that all will be saved eventually puts me at odds with the standard evangelical community he was once so much a part of and that I was once so much a part of.  So I found his journey fascinating.

That perfect family life at L’Abri was not so perfect after all.  Those family reunions that Edith Schaeffer wrote about as so idyllic were filled with angry fighting.  Francis was an abusive husband, and Edith was not a tremendously respectful wife.  Both were rather neglectful parents, sacrificing family life for “the work” and letting their son run wild.  (Not that he didn’t enjoy that!)

He also points out that Francis and Edith were very open and accepting — at least for most of their lives.  But they closed down that openness when they were catering to the American evangelical political movement.  He has some scathing words about many American evangelical leaders, and points out some things about them that were downright strange.

He grew up in Europe, and when he got involved in American politics, he didn’t even really know America.  His parents enjoyed European culture, and thought themselves a bit above your run-of-the-mill Americans.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Shall We Then Live? was based on his wide knowledge of Western art and history.  Having lived for ten years in Europe myself, I have some sneaking sympathies with him on these points. 

I’m sure many hero-worshipers will be bitterly angry that Frank Schaeffer would say anything negative about his parents.  He also says many positive things, but is trying to write about his own strange childhood.  He makes the point that we are all human, that the perfect “common sense Christian living” may have its own flaws, under the surface, if you look more closely. 

This book was fascinating and eye-opening.  I appreciate the look at someone else’s thoughts about what it really means to live for God, and making sense of his own life’s path and life’s work.  In many ways, with the collapse of my marriage, I am looking at some of the same issues.  So I appreciated this chance to get someone else’s perspective, as well as to learn that what I thought of as idealistic perfection in my youth didn’t actually match that in reality.

I’m coming to think that a lot of what God wants from us is to live life as the person he made us to be:  Enjoying his blessings and doing the work He made us best suited for, whether it has anything to do with “leading others to Christ” or not.  I doubt that Frank Schaeffer would word it exactly that way, but I felt that much of his spiritual journeying mirrors my own, and I appreciate the insights from a fellow traveler.

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www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/crazy_for_god.html

Review of Saving the Griffin, by Kristin Wolden Nitz

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Saving the Griffin

by Kristin Wolden Nitz

Peachtree, 2007.  184 pages.

Starred Review

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2008, #1 Children’s Fiction

http://www.peachtree-online.com/

http://www.kwnitz.com/

I’m finally reviewing my friend Kristin’s wonderful book.  Unfortunately, when it first came out, I was in the middle of moving and grad school and lots of things that led to stacks of books I meant to review but didn’t quite get around to.

I freely admit that I am biased about this book.  Kristin is part of my online writers’ critique group, the Sisters of Royaumont, so I saw early versions of this book and contributed some encouragement and suggestions.

However, I’ve gotten lots of feedback from kids that they love this book.  My nephew declared it the best book he’d ever read.  Recently, the Homeschoolers’ Book Group at my library chose Saving the Griffin as their first selection, and every one of them said they liked it a lot.

Kate and her family, with an older brother and a younger brother, are living in Italy for a month.  When a baby griffin interrupts their ball game, at first Kate thinks she must have looked at too many wild statues.  She and Michael try to keep the griffin a secret, while feeding him and helping him learn to fly and even to say a few words.

Their older brother, Stephen, thinks he’s too grown up for their “games,” and doesn’t realize what he’s missing.  But the little griffin gets spotted by a photographer and then gets lost in Siena.  Kate and Michael need to help him find his way home.

One of the things I like about this book is the perfect depiction of the sibling tensions between Kate and her brothers.  Stephen is suddenly acting too grown-up for them, but Kate remembers when he was her companion, and Michael was just a baby.  I also loved the way Kristin, who lived in Italy for a few years, beautifully integrated the Italian setting and words in Italian, giving the flavor of Italy.

The kids in the book group said they especially liked the way the book mixed magic with everyday life.

This book isn’t long, and would be a nice follow-up for kids who enjoy The Spiderwick Chronicles.  I admit I’m biased, but I did like Saving the Griffin better.  It has a more light-hearted feel.  You’re dealing with an adorable baby griffin rather than sinister angry characters.  However, there is still tension in trying to save the little griffin from the dangers of the human world.

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