Reviews

An artist's eyes by Frances Tosdevin. Illus. by Clemence Monnet

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When Mo looks at the sea, she sees "dazzling duck-egg blue, a swirl of peacocks and the inky indigo of evening" but all Jo sees is blue.

When Mo looks at the forest, she sees "shiny apple-green, the lime of gooseberries and the springy zinginess of moss" and shadows that make the green go darker. But all Jo sees is green, making him more and more frustrated because he can't see what Mo does. But Mo is patient and gradually Jo begins to use his imagination although instead of seeing the shades and hues that Mo does, he starts to see something different...

This is a powerful yet gentle story that reminds the reader that two people can look at exactly the same thing and see it differently- that each of us has artist's eyes that are shaped by our imagination, experience and perceptions and it can take us a while to align them. Monnet's watercolour interpretation of Tosdevin's lyrical text is enchanting and with their shapes, lines and colour choices the reader will view them through Mo's eyes or Jo's eyes or their own eyes...

At the age where our children are exploring a new independence and making a wider friendship group, they look at those around them and think that being like them is the key to "success:" and they try to change who they are to be like those they admire. So this familiar message of being comfortable in your own skin, being the unique individual you are, perhaps even being the 'you' that others admire and seek to emulate is important and cannot be shared too often. So this iteration of that truth is not only important but being a completely different interpretation gives it added reach and recognition. Whether our eyes kiss in the corners or speak to the stars, sees shapes or colours or sparkles, what we see is unique to us and is as valid as what our neighbour sees.

Barbara Braxton

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Shine, Star, Shine! by Dom Conlon. Illus. by Anastasia Izlesou

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From the author of Swim, Shark, Swim! comes the book Shine, Star, Shine! once again written in the complex poetic language style which sets these books apart from others in the factual narrative range. Our biggest star is the sun, and this story shares how it is so very important in our lives. From where it rises in the east, to night and day, how it ‘ripens the wheat in Idaho, adds fire to spice in Punjab’ and provides a source of growth for flowers and forests from China to Brazil.  The sun visits Australia and shares with the reader how it can burn and cause harm. It then travels west, through deserts, and to the North and South Poles where it stays low.

The striking illustrations are presented in a dark pallet of colour with the orange orb of the sun the focal point. There is a great deal of detail in each of the drawings to engage the readers and promote discussion. In particular, the images of the constellations are striking. The author has included Star Facts in the final pages which provide helpful explanations of more difficult words and concepts. This is a book which benefits from being read more than once and discussed with younger children. 

Teacher Notes can be found here

Themes Sun, Stars, Planet Earth, Constellations.

Kathryn Beilby

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The callers by Kiah Thomas

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Quin Octavius is an 11-year-old boy who lives in dread of a test he must sit to prove he is a Caller. Calling is a special ability you are born with where you summon things by saying the word and that object appears. There’s no need to grow your own food or buy anything if you are a Caller. His intimidating and powerful mother is Chief Councilor in this world of Elipsom. His sister Davinia, and best friend Cassius, are accomplished Callers. Quin knows he doesn’t have this ability and is mortified that his mother and sister cheat in order for him to pass the test and therefore uphold family honour and dominance. Quin realizes there are people who don’t rely on Calling and live much simpler, happier lives and he questions the way things work in Elipsom. Suddenly he finds himself in another world, Evantra, where he meets and befriends Allie. He discovers the truth about Calling and how Elipsom is abusing the people of Evantra and stealing from them. Quin also learns the truth about himself and his own important gift which may help revive a deteriorating natural world.

The Callers is a very well-paced and readable sci-fi parable about our own world. Currently powerful governments and greedy businesses exploit people and resources and destroy lives and the environment. These are important topics to ponder and I think this novel will work well as a class novel for 11/12-year-olds. There are also ethical issues of honesty, betrayal and questions of loyalty to family. Although The Callers deals with serious stuff this is balanced out with a creative and rich world of maengoberries and rhinodrites. The inhabitants of Evantra have ingenuity and care for each other. Then there are also the heroic characters of Quin and Allie who have hope and principles. The story ended quite positively but abruptly and I think there will probably be a sequel.

Themes Greed, Power, Honesty, Exploitation.

Jo Marshall

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Out of the ruins by Preston Grassmann ed.

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Out of the Ruins is a collection of post-apocalyptic short stories from some big names in science and speculative fiction. China Mieville (The Scar, The City & The City), Emily St John Mandel (Station Eleven) and Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties, In the Dream House) are just a few of the authors featured. The premise of the collection is to look at the end of the world through the ruins left behind. What do we as a species and as individuals value the most? What do we wish to salvage from the wreckage and will we be able to save our humanity? The importance of resilience emerges as a clear theme from beginning to end.

Out of the Ruins features eighteen short stories and two poems. As with most collections of its type, not all are created equally. There are some notable standouts, such as St John Mandel’s ‘Mr Thursday’, written in the author’s famously slow, lyrical and melancholic style. Nina Allan’s ‘A Storm in Kingstown’, with its post-apocalyptic reimagining of witchcraft hysteria, is also impressive.

However, there are also disappointments, including the fact that Clive Barker (Abarat) who is featured prominently on the book’s cover, only contributes a short poem. Some readers will be disappointed with the abrupt ending of many of the stories, particularly those written by their favourite authors. However, this is a common complaint for the short story genre and readers will need to be comfortable with being left yearning for more.

Themes Science Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Horror, Short Stories, Speculative Fiction.

Rose Tabeni

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Beastheart : Slayer Book 1 by A.H. Blade

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On one level, Slayer, the first book in the new Beastheart series, is a vile and violent book, one that would not be confidently recommended to children. Why one may ask do children need to read about such brutality in such graphic detail? Against this, one must note that Slayer is written by the same group of authors, writing under the same non de plume of A.H.Blade, that produced over 100 books in 20 different series called Beastquest.  

A.H.Blade has a huge following of fantasy lovers. While hesitant about promoting this book and during discussion about appropriate book selection, an eleven year old student challenged me with "Why wouldn't you keep it in the library for us! It's just D.& D."  (Dungeons and Dragons).

Beastheart : Slayer is the first book in what will be another epic fantasy adventure series. The kingdoms, the worlds, are extremely complex, consisting of complicated alliances and rivalries between and within hierarchical human, elemental and magical kinds. The focus is on creation and destruction of Biblical proportions with " kinds" organised in a style reminiscent of Linnaeus's system of classification. These worlds were created in the beginning. There was an order but humans destroyed it. The new world is run by beasts called the "new kind" and humanity is the bottom class living a frightened slave-like, menial existence. 

Our protagonist, Jonas, is a human. He has been blamed and jailed for the mysterious destruction of his village - an act of which  he has no memory. To reduce his sentence he has to use his killing power to catch criminals to trade against his sentence. Jonas is hard to like. His killing is a passion within him but there is also a struggle within him and a fear and uncertainty about his history. Importantly, he has a secret, supernatural connection with an invisible spirit which gives him strength and companionship. The reader feels there is hope for redemption for him but it is a long time coming. 

The characters and the settings are complex; the plot is complicated and convoluted. A fantasy world is built; violent confrontations and deaths occur. A  powerful cinematic world of action and colour is achieved. There is the mysterious past, there is the dangerous present, there is warfare, there is destruction, there are unstable alliances, despair and a vague hope.

Slayer is set in multiverses. Readers who are fluent fantasy readers, who can cope with multiple twists, characters, events and subplots, who can hold multiple threads together and are comfortable with tangled, intricate and sometimes impenetrable layers will enjoy Slayer. 

I will test it on the abovementioned student. No doubt the series will be a resounding success! 

Themes Fantasy kingdoms, Warfare, Human, magic and elemental realms.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Once there were wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

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Inti Flynn has come to Scotland with her twin sister Aggie as leader of a group hoping to reintroduce gray wolves into the Scottish Highlands. She, like her sister, is damaged, unable to trust anyone, but as the wolves begin to settle down, she too begins to open up and starts to trust Duncan, the local police chief. Then Stuart, a local farmer, is found murdered, and Inti is determined that blame will not rest with her wolves. But who has killed Stuart? And is Duncan involved as well?

Once there were wolves is a complex and multi-layered story that will remain with the reader long after it has been finished. Gradually the author expertly exposes the mysteries surrounding the traumas that Inti, Aggie, and Duncan have experienced, at the same time building up the tension surrounding the murder of Stuart.

The setting of Scotland and Canada is exquisitely written. The descriptions of the forests and the wolves, the fear that the farmers have of the wolves and Inti’s lack of consultation all draw the reader in.

Inti is a fascinating character who has mirror touch synaesthesia, where she feels the pain of others, and McConaghy uses this to highlight the pain of the animals and the trauma that Aggie has suffered.

The dark themes of domestic violence, the survival of the wolves and people’s damage to the planet are threaded through the book challenging the reader, while the mystery of what happened to Inti and Aggie and who killed Stuart, keep the reader glued to the page. Book Club notes are available. Readers who enjoyed The survivors by Jane Harper may like Once there were wolves.

Themes Murder, Wolves, Conservation, Domestic violence.

Pat Pledger

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The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton

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The Marvellers represents a departure for author Dhonielle Clayton from her previous young adult fantasy of The Belles and the modern realism of Blackout. Her latest book is a fantasy adventure for young readers in the style of Harry Potter. Eleven-year-old Ella Durand is of Conjuror heritage, the first conjuror ever to be sent to the amazing school of the Marvellers, the ‘Arcanum Training Institute for Marvellous and Uncanny Endeavors’. It’s like a Hogwarts but very multicultural with students from all over the world, and it’s a whole lot more sparkly. Clayton clearly has a picture in her mind of the magical world she has conjured up and while the curiosities and spangles may be a bit overwhelming the main thread of the novel makes sense and picks up subtly on themes of racism, bullying and exclusion, which she knows so well how to present.

Clayton dedicates her novel to ‘the kids missing from magic stories who started to believe that there was nothing marvellous about them’. Without being too explicit it is apparent that Ella is black, she has twists in her hair, and her family believe in African American folk magic. Her two close friends are also misfits in the new school, and they all have to stand up to discrimination and bullying. Ella is an endearing hero, she is bright and cheerful and remains kind and helpful to people who try to put her down. An equivalent would be Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s bouncing positive character Layla in You must be Layla.

However, Clayton’s magical world allows readers to absorb life lessons about acceptance of diversity, without obvious moralising, and I’m sure readers who enjoy this fantasy will be eagerly awaiting its sequel.

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Identity, Diversity, Resilience, Bullying, Racism.

Helen Eddy

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A remarkable woman by Jules Van Mil

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A remarkable woman is the story of Avril Montdidier, leaving behind the traumas of occupied France in WWII, and embarking on a new adventure far away in Melbourne in 1950. She brings with her a deep personal grief, but also a knowledge of Paris couture and a willingness to carve a new life as an independent woman. It is her worldliness, her experience, and her courage that make her a strong and unusual woman in her new environment, and it’s not long before she finds new friends, and new opportunities.

Van Mil’s novel vividly depicts the flourishing fashioning industry of 1950’s Melbourne alongside the outback beauty of a Queensland cattle station. Both environments draw Avril in, until she finds herself at a crossroads, having to make a choice between an ill-fated love and the career she always dreamed of.

Van Mil’s novel draws together themes that still resonate today: domestic violence, alcoholism, and homophobia, and her central character is a person who chooses her own destiny, carving her own future, and also providing for other women not as fortunate as herself. The motto ‘Timing is everything’ becomes a lucky omen, and she finds that her time does come around.

This is a novel for those who love historical romance with a strong female protagonist, and who are interested in the world of fashion. Van Mil brings a long experience of working in the fashion world, an experience that enriches her novel and makes it an enjoyable read.

Themes Historical fiction, Romance, Fashion, Feminism.

Helen Eddy

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The Book Club bank heist by Ruth Quayle and Marta Kissi

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Easter holidays and Joe is on his way to stay with his Granny in Muddlemoor, a quintessential English country village (complete with a vicar fund-raising for a new church roof) and he's very excited because not only does he love going there but his Welsh cousins Pip and Tom are joining him.

But when they discover that a dangerous gang of robbers is hiding in the local area, it seems like this is another mystery for them to solve, and so they start an investigation straightaway. At first, a number of people and places come under suspicion as they follow the procedures in Tom's favourite series of books by ace detective Albie Short, but it's when Granny's Book Group seems to be acting RATHER suspiciously that their focus shifts.. Could Granny's Book Group be the true-life bank robbers? After all, they always seems to be short of cash until Granny seems to start splashing it around, they NEVER talk about books and for another thing they keep going on about a local bank. There's only one thing for it. The cousins must stop Granny getting arrested, even if it means putting themselves in danger.

Told by 9 year-old Joe in the conversational style of the age group with lots of illustrations to break up the text, this is a good story for newly independent readers who like down-to-earth stories that they can feel they are a part of, either as an observer or a participant. Because they're straddling the line between working with the concrete and the abstract, having to be involved and being able to be objective, they will probably join the dots like Joe and his cousins do and they will delight in the way the robbers are eventually caught. A great way to introduce this genre that might lead to classics likeĀ The Famous Five, The Secret Seven or perhaps Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys, each taking them into the world of mystery adventures as well as a time before the internet and mobile phones, maybe even into conversations with their grandparents about books shared and enjoyed.

Themes Mystery.

Barbara Braxton

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Princess Olivia investigates : The wrong weather by Lucy Hawking

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Young Princess Olivia Alez has not really enjoyed her life as a pampered princess and when her parents lose their roles as King and Queen of the Kingdom of Alez, she is quietly excited to be forced to live life as a ‘normal’ child. However, away from the haughty and grand heights of the castle, life is not as Olivia was expecting. The town and country sides are suffering from terrible mistreatment and neglect. The weather is unpredictable, food and water are in short supply and life for the citizens of Alez appears hopeless.

The best thing to come out of losing the right to live in the castle, is that Olivia is forced to attend school for the very first time. With her naturally inquisitive brain, Olivia had read all the books in the castle library, so she cannot wait to learn all that school has to offer. However, school does not go so well initially but thanks to two new friends, Ravi and Helga, she begins to settle in. Olivia questions everything around her but finds her questions being blocked especially those related to weather: in particular the thick, dark clouds that hang over city, the fierce rains or extreme heat, the barren land and the incredible amount of rubbish that litters the rivers and streets. Olivia and her friends set out to investigate the causes of the weather phenomena and climate destruction to see if they can make a difference to their kingdom.

The first novel in a brand-new series by author Lucy Hawking, Princess Olivia Investigates: The Wrong Weather, provides a welcome introduction and explanation to the impact humans are having on the planet. Strategically placed throughout this story are easy-to-understand scientific explanations of volcanoes, water shortages, climate change and extreme weather as well as the importance of trees. The clever graphic-style drawings of the quirky characters and the devastation of the countryside will engage the young reader. In the final pages is an epilogue from Olivia with a conclusion of what was discovered plus a handy glossary and acknowledgements.

Themes Royalty, Climate Change, Friendship, Diversity, Science, Saving the Planet.

Kathryn Beilby

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The winter dress by Lauren Chater

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This is a delightful historical saga. Jo Baaker is a textiles historian who grew up in Holland on Texel Island, an island that had a history of shipwrecks. She now lives in Sydney and is writing a book. Her career in the historical world of fabrics and clothing and her personal connection to the diving community off the coast of Texel means that she is the first to hear when local divers bring up a 17th Century dress… a rare and almost miraculous finding. This is the story of the research to find out the background of this amazing discovery. The book also weaves the historical story of the original owner of the dress, Anna Tesseltje. This is a dramatic tale of wealth lost, survival in hard times and the artistic world of portrait painters and also the dilemma of being female in a patriarchal society.

The dual storylines of the intrigue of finding and researching a rare artefact in the present day, and the historical world and social times of the Art world of the 1600s, make for an interesting tale. With a hint of romance for the character Anna, and suggestion of a romance for the acclaimed artist Catharina Van Shurman with her former female apprentice, there are layers of intrigue and interest. The 17th Century Art world as a setting for the historical part of this story is almost the highlight of the story, although there are some obvious unpleasant realities of life at this time. This is a book that will be enjoyed by those who enjoy historical fiction and the world of the History research process.

Themes Textiles, History, Shipwrecks, 17th Century social history, Historians, Art history, Sexism.

Carolyn Hull

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Spotlight please: It's Stevie Louise by Tanya Hennessy

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Well she’s back! Stevie Louise and her Lunchbox Production Crew have returned, and are still as loveable, relatable and entertaining as ever! Children are sure to enjoy this book, even if they haven’t read the first in the series, Drum Roll Please….It’s Stevie Louise.

Stevie Louise and her friends from the Lunchbox Production crew are ready for some more fun and laughter! She and her friends love performing and creating shows to entertain everyone. The Lunchbox Productions is the best thing ever, but keeping up with the cost of costumes, props and sets could be the downfall of their great enterprise. Where could they get the money to keep their loved and fun past time in operation? When they hear of a talent show with prize money, they set about to put together a winning act. This could be the difference between Lunchbox Productions continuing or closing. They are super excited, until they hear about the stiff competition they are up against. From dancing grannies, singing goats and fire twirling singing sensations, will Lunchbox Production Crew have what it takes to bring home the prize money or will disaster strike?

Spotlight Please….It’s Stevie Louise, written by multi-talented comedian and social media personality, Tanya Hennessy is the second book in the already popular series, Stevie Louise. Hennessy has written another fast paced and entertaining novel. This story is an easy read, with slightly larger print and a smattering of different fonts for enhancement. Along with great illustrations throughout, this makes for a highly engaging read, even perhaps for those reluctant readers. It could also make a terrific read aloud to children aged 6–8 years of age, due to its fast paced storyline and highly relatable characters that effortlessly capture the audience’s attention.

With an underlying message for the importance for honesty, team support and self-belief, this book is a feel-good winner!

Themes Humour, Friendships, Performing, Creativity, Honesty, Teamwork.

Michelle O'Connell

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Word travelers and the Taj Mahal mystery by Raj Haldar. Illus. by Neha Rawat

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Eddie and Molly-Jean (MJ) are next-door neighbours and best friends, who normally spend their weekends watching TV and playing together.  But on this Saturday they are challenged by Eddie’s mother to find out the origin of the word pajamas in his Great-grandpa Oscar’s special book, which they find in the attic.  Great Grandpa Oscar was a famous etymologist, and his Awesome Enchanted book magically takes them to India where they are challenged to solve a mystery for their new friend Dev. The Rajasthani prince needs their help to find an ancient treasure belonging to his family so that they can rebuild his local school which was destroyed in a typhoon. As they race to solve a range of word-related puzzle clues before a mystery competitor does, they unlock for the reader a range of words and where their origins lie.

The novel has a Glossary of word origins in the back and words throughout the book are printed in bold if they appear in this glossary.  The book is illustrated with helpful sketches of some of the characters and activities in the story as well as a map at the beginning of the book which lists some places in India that the children visit on their search. This book is the first in a series about these two characters as they discover the fascinating origins of words in the English language through some exciting adventures that take them to different parts of the world, solving some very puzzling mysteries and helping those in need at the same time. The next book in this series is called Word travellers and the missing Mexican Mole.

Themes Fantasy, Etymology,Travel, Adventure, Mystery.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Four bad unicorns by Rebecca Patterson

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Frankie and Connie just love playing unicorns.They dream about the animals while they sleep, Connie has her hair tied up by dad in a unicorn rainbow, while Frankie puts on her unicorn socks. She downs her cereal in fourteen seconds and waits while dad feeds Connie. They are going to play unicorns all day long and are very excited. Unicorn Farmers is their favourite game but just as they are about to start, Ada and Colin come in from next door. They want to play too but Ada’s idea of playing unicorns is quite different from the game Connie and Frankie intended to play. Being polite they go along with Ada dominating the game. She takes on the role of queen, using Frankie’s glittery shoes. She orders them all to make a wall, Connie in her wheelchair being made part of it. Ada insists they all dance for her then complains when they are not very good and sends them all to unicorn prison. By now readers will have become sick of Ada and her orders, and they will cheer, when the other three break out of prison and walk out. They make themselves into a unicorn train and go through the front door, Ada remonstrating that the train has no sparkles.

When she realises how serious they are she breaks down. The others relent, and decide to be good unicorns together. When the children returned home for lunch, Connie and Frankie keep on playing unicorns all afternoon and into the night, enjoying every minute.

All the while, everything unicorn is added to this charming story. Bright colour filled illustrations will draw in the readers and they will get a thrill from seeing so many unicorns on the pages and the things associated with them, but also get the message about playing together, about sharing ideas, giving and taking, about friendship.

Themes Unicorns, Friendship, Sharing, Humour, Play.

Fran Knight

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The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

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“She is awake.”

So begins The Leviathan, an atmospheric and deeply unsettling debut by author Rosie Andrews. Set in one of the most turbulent periods in English history – the Civil War of 1642 to 1651 – The Leviathan tells the story of reluctant soldier Thomas Treadwater, who makes his way home from battle to a family and community in crisis.

Summoned by his sister Esther’s increasingly urgent letters, Thomas arrives at the family’s farm to find his father gravely ill, their livelihood on the brink of ruin and a sister caught up in religious zealotry. To Thomas’ shock, witchcraft is being investigated in his small town and his sister is the one pointing the finger. As Thomas strives to unravel the complex intertwining of events, personalities and relationships, he begins to realise that his preconceived notions of what is real and possible are about to be shattered.

Told from two perspectives at the prime and the end of Thomas’ life, The Leviathan is a horror novel that expertly combines the supernatural with the historical reality. Andrews’ medieval England is dark and chilling and the language and setting used is faultless. At heart a mystery novel with a fantastical twist, The Leviathan is a tense and slow-burning story which ends with a superb twist. 

Themes Historical, Horror, Fantasy, Mystery, Medieval, Witchcraft, Religion, Evil, Family, Identity.

Rose Tabeni

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