Into the River by Ted Dawe – Just when you thought book banning was old school.

Into the RiverInto the River by Ted Dawe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My copy of “Into the River”, New Zealand’s supreme winner in the NZPost Book Awards, came with a little black sticker cautioning “Parental Advisory, Explicit Content.” on it. Man, I couldn’t wait to read it as soon as I saw that! Talk about way to sell a book.

But the sordid pornography, gratuitous sex scenes, rampant drug taking and general reckless teenage behaviour that had neurotic parents baulking, never actually materialised. Perhaps that’s because those neurotic parents hadn’t actually READ the book, cover to cover, in context. Or maybe it’s because I still remember what it was like to be a teenager; and I’m not in the business of feigning shock at what goes on when parents’ backs are turned.

Even the much anticipated “C-word” references left me wanting. Like the sound a lone party horn makes just before it fizzes and dies out, those passages were so fleeting, and so perfectly “within context” as to be anti-climatic. I had to re-read them just to give them another chance to make an impact. I felt like saying “C’mon Ted, you gotta earn that Parental Advisory sticker! All you’ve given us so far is real people talking how real people talk!”

And as for the sex scenes, I can honestly say I’ve inadvertently come across more offensive content searching for vacuum cleaner parts on the internet.

Yes, I’m being facetious. But hey! When was the last time a book was banned in New Zealand? This is exciting stuff! Of course, if you want to have a more serious, intelligent, philosophical and moral discussion about these issues I recommend you read Bernard Beckett’s blog and comments section. As a judge of the awards, Bernard has generously invited anyone with an opinion and an internet connection to engage with him on any and all issues raised in the book.

For those of you either not in New Zealand, or living under a rock, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about. Here’s a synopsis: “Into the River” is the story of a young Māori boy from a small rural town on the East Coast of NZ who wins a scholarship to a prestigious (predominantly Pākeha (white)), upper class boarding school in Auckland, on the strength of his academic potential. Te Arepa, or Devon as he’s nicknamed at the new school, carries the name of a heroic ancestor whose courage and bravery once saved the whole iwi (tribe). Te Arepa’s grandfather is ambitious for his grandson, seeing this scholarship as the opportunity to carry the great legacy on in modern times.

Author Ted Dawe is a school teacher with many years experience in the profession, and it shows; this feels like it’s been written by someone on the inside. He has painted larger than life characters, from Grandfather Ra, to Cousin Paikea, to the bully to the best friend, all with a light touch. Dialogue is astutely observed and drives the novel forward. There are scenes vivid enough to make you feel like you’re right there. There’s peer pressure, complicated complex relationships, fast cars, dope, decisions that are made without conscious consideration, repercussions, anger, disappointment, confusion, foolhardiness and loss.

More seriously, it explores the vulnerability of young people and the myriad ways in which they can find themselves in the kind of trouble they never anticipated coming. Including sexual vulnerability. It is about stress and ultimately survival. The momentum builds gradually but relentlessly, weaving together the strands of the past and an uncertain future in a way that ensures you will want to finish it in one sitting. “Into the River” is a so-called prequel to Thunder Road, which makes sense: the ending feels more like a new beginning than a conclusion. Bonus side-note: both novels were self-published to critical acclaim (so there, traditional publishers!).

If you ask me what the real horror in this novel was though, it was the depiction of life at a boy’s boarding school. I wish that someone might be able to reassure me that Ted Dawe got it all wrong when portraying how the pecking order is established and maintained, or how cruelly and even brutally punishments are meted out. But as a school teacher who taught in a boarding school himself, something tells me he was drawing more on fact than imagination. Forget the “C” word, think Lord of the Flies.

Although there are aspects of this novel that can be generalised and will be recognisable to anyone who’s grown up in New Zealand, “Into the River” is not about the general experience at all, rather the very specific experiences of a boy shunted out to the margins of society.

The only time where I questioned the veracity of the story was in the personal journey of Te Arepa himself. Though I liked him a lot, and could identify with his silent outrage, when he acquiesced to the pressure to shed every semblance of his former self, his very identify, in order to be accepted in a Pākeha world, I came up short. Would he really have done that? Would he not have fought back, dug his heels in, even a little?

It’s not that a Pākeha man can’t write about the Māori experience, as some vehement critics have argued. I think Ted Dawe can, and does do credibly. But we are all products of our time, and I would have expected a character like Te Arepa, raised by his grandfather (an elder or possibly even the chief of the iwi?) in a small rural town in a predominantly Māori area of New Zealand, to be fluent, or have at least some knowledge of Te Reo (Māori language). Particularly given that the novel is set in the latter period of the Māori Renaissance (although the novel is not actually specific about the period a mobile phone features, as well as party drug “e”, so it’s at least somewhere post-1990s). In other words, after the Kohanga Reo movement which saw a huge resurgence of the Māori language and an effort particularly in rural areas, to revive its roots. Surely Te Arepa’s concept of the world would have been filtered first through Te Reo?

Likewise, I would have thought Te Arepa’s cultural reference points – such as Kapa Haka, marae life, communal rituals and so on, to have been greater features in his life (and therefore to have been much harder to dispense with). The absence of these tenets may have been deliberate; a comment about the loss and dispossession that Māori have suffered, not to mention the institutional racism endured throughout successive generations. Certainly, Te Arepa feels the only way to survive is to reinvent himself. But somehow I expected the anguish he went through in coming to that conclusion would have been greater than it appeared to be, and his resistance to have been more profound than it was.

Regardless, it’s a great book, well written. And my appreciation for Ted Dawe’s talent and achievement was enriched further after reading more about him, and in particular from listening to Kim Hill’s wonderful interview where he revealed himself to be nothing if not wise, humble, intelligent, creative, and most of all, knowledgeable and passionate about literature as a means of connecting with, and validating the experiences of, young people growing up in New Zealand.

I absolutely recommend his book, although, if you are after something a little less savoury, I suggest you google vacuum cleaner parts instead.

***P.S. If you’re one of aforementioned neurotic parents who feels threatened by books portraying real life with the nasty, sex ridden, drug-addled bits left in, then you’ll be grateful that the helpful people over at Goodreads have done you the favour of putting together a censorship list for you. Go forth and ensure your kids only read these ban books for your teen!***

***P.P.S For a great, balanced review of Into The River, written long before the book won its award and drew negative speculation, see Megan’s review. It’s interesting to gauge the views of someone who was reading with a blank slate, so to speak.***

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Book Review: A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

A Winter's Day in 1939A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review – 10yrs
“This was a good book all about the second world war and being moved around places to different concentration camps. It is about one family from Poland who is experiencing all of this, starvation, cold, work, sickness and death. So many tragic things happened to them. They lost their farm and were moved all around Russia on trains and by horse and cart and even walking in the snow. It was written from a boy’s point of view and how he felt about everything that was happening and it was so realistic because I could imagine being there. Especially on the train with the pipe for the toilet. But I wish it didn’t end with the [spoiler removed] because that was really sad. I wanted to know what happened to her, and I wanted them to keep searching for her. 4 stars, I really liked it.”

Mum’s Review: 
One of the interesting things about reading aloud is that you have three different experiences – first is your own personal experience of the book, the second is observing how the book is received by your listener, and the third is the shared experience; what you both gain from discussing particular events as they occur.

And what I learnt as a result of reading “A Winter’s Day in 1939” is that these three different experiences can be quite distinct; what impacts me, is not necessarily what impacts the one listening (in this case, a 10 year old). I think there is wisdom in this somewhere – it’s not about writing “down” to children, it’s about being able to get inside their world and share it as they experience it.

It was interesting to observe, for example, how quickly Cormac responded to the “and then” nature of the book (“and then” being a completely adult take on it). In truth, it is written with far more sophistication than this, but the fact remains it is a chronologically-told tale. Where I might have wanted some deeper enlightenment, or reflection from above or from the future looking back, or an objective narrator to lay out out the historical and political factors influencing the events taking place, the kid just wanted to know: What happened next? The simplicity was what drew him in – from Page 1 until the very end, he was hooked.

There is no doubt that the story is a powerful one. It illuminates a side of the war which I myself knew very little about – that of the Polish refugees caught between warring nations locked in an arm wrestle over territory and power. Adam is a 12 year old boy whose family is forced off their land and into a succession of labour camps around Russia. While Poland’s fate hangs in the balance, Adam and his brother and sister and mother cling to one another to survive the most brutal, punishing conditions – watching helplessly as others do not. The family suffer their own heartbreaking losses too.

What I most appreciated in “A Winter’s Day in 1939” was the beauty and simplicity of the writing, and in particular the way a child’s eye-view was captured in the descriptions of place and people:

Buildings had tumbled down into the street. Some were roofless, like soft-boiled eggs with their lids off. Here and there I saw signs of repair: fresh wooden weatherboards like raw scars, and tarpaulins keeping out the winter weather. But some places were beyond fixing and had been abandoned to the elements, their insides exposed, frozen with an icing of snow.

and

As the temperatures warmed everyone relaxed, thinking the worst was over. We were wrong. Diseases thrived in the warm, sticky air and weren’t fussy about who they infected. Now even fit people got sick. Death waltzed into camp every day.

Despite the fact that I say I would have liked to have been able to delve deeper into the motivating political issues of the time, in actual fact, through small details and minor clues, Szymanik does a very good job of highlighting the push and pull of external forces dictating the reality of the Adam’s life. And the interesting thing (going back to how an adult perceives a book versus a child) Cormac wasn’t particularly interested in the why’s and the why-not’s anyway. He understood that it wasn’t fair that Adam’s family was kicked out of their house and he pitied all the things they had to go through, but he actually didn’t need a history lesson on all the detailed reasons why. He just wanted to know: Will they survive?

And that is what kept him haranguing me “Read, Mama, Lets Read!”
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Too Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

Too Small to FailToo Small to Fail by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Review by Cormac, aged 10) “This was a good book. It had loads of words in it that I didn’t exactly understand, to do with finance, but it still was a good book. I liked how they crashed in the desert and Nancy sprained her ankle, and just how weird it was that the whole book was based on a dog and a camel. I think the moral of the story is you should appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it. I don’t think his parents were mean they were just working hard for his future”

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Mum’s note: We got half way through this book (reading aloud) before Cormac made off with it to read late into the night on his own. So the ploy works, obviously. It’s about a wealthy kid whose parents are in the investment banking trade at the time of the financial crisis and how he deals with the morality of his situation. The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “Morris Gleitzman has a rare gift for writing very funny stories and an even rarer gift of wrapping very serious stories inside them.” Highly recommended.

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The Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

The Ghost Behind the WallThe Ghost Behind the Wall by Melvin Burgess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is incredibly well done. It subtly presents the reader with two images of David; one of a naughty mischievous and slightly vindictive character and another of a misunderstood, sometimes neglected young boy. The issues it deals with (sole parenting, poverty and ageing) are very raw and I don’t get the sense the Melvin Burgess wanted to cushion any impressionable readers from the realities at hand.

Far from it in fact. At one point in the story kids are confronted with some very uncomfortable moral situations in which they are left to evaluate the meanness of David’s behaviour towards the elderly man upstairs. It’s interesting – you can judge your kids in lots of different ways; how good they are at maths, how well they do in sports, what kind of things their teacher’s say about them. But at the end of the day, when they feel sorry the old man in the book they’re reading, to the extent that you can see deep empathy and real concern on their faces, then you know they’re doing alright.

Melvin Burgess, in case you didn’t know (I didn’t!) is a multi-prize winning children’s author; one of his more well known books was made into the film “Billy Elliot.” I’ll definitely be looking that and other up in the future.

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormac’s Review (aged 10):
“This book is about a kid who was born with a cleft palate and a badly disfigured face. His parents make him go to a normal school for the first time when he’s in Middle School. At first he doesn’t want to go because he’s scared of what people will say about his face. But he does make some friends, Jack Will, Summer. He also makes some enemies, like Juian and his friends. What I liked the most is that it wasn’t just from August’s point of view. It was also from the point of view of his friends. You should read it.”

Mum’s 2 cents:

Great book to read-aloud; really takes you inside the mind of a child who is “different”, a concept which will likely appeal to all kids. Really highlights the issue of empathy, by giving kids the chance to “see what it feels like”. And when the going gets tough with the inevitable bullying that comes when August starts school, it has the desired effect on the reader – we felt bad, really bad, for August. The first part of the novel has great pace (and chapters are extraordinarily short which gives the impression you’re zipping through it), but I felt it lost its way a bit after the first half. Having said that, I don’t think it was the intent for the book to have a climax at the end, as with a traditional novel, rather there were a series of ups and downs throughout, perfectly mimicking how an actual school year goes. Highly recommended.

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Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

Tulip FeverTulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick and fabulous read that is anguishingly predictable at every turn, yet somehow more enjoyable because of that fact. It is set in 17th century Amsterdam against the backdrop of tulip-mania (think of it as the olden day equivalent of real estate speculation, only instead of houses we’re talking flowers. Yup, flowers.). It involves a young wife, a house-maid, a painter, an illicit affair and an illegitimate child upon whose life a web of lies and money, a lot of money, is staked. But how much is enough? And when does desire slip over into greed and obsession?

This is historical fiction at its best – it piqued my interest in a subject I knew nothing about, and spun a great old yarn at the same time.

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Patchwork, by Ellen Banda-Aaaku

PatchworkPatchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a book called Poppadom Preach at around about the same time as I read this novel, Patchwork, by Ellen Banda-Aaku. They’re both very similar; first person narrations by neglected children suffering at the hands of their parents. However, where Poppadom Preach uses a heavy dose of black humour to illuminate the story, Patchwork follows a much more traditional path. In other words, you’ll be filing this under Heavy Going.

Set in Zambia in the 1970s – 80s, 9 year old Pumpkin is an unwilling accomplice in her mother’s alcoholism, hiding her empty bottles, mopping up her vomit and heaving her unconscious weight into bed night after night. They live in a community housing block, the setting for most of Pumpkin’s early memories, not to mention street-wise education. The bulk of their material needs are met by Pumpkin’s father, a wealthy businessman who keeps his lover and illegitimate offspring hidden away from public view.

That is, until he discovers the truth about the conditions in which his daughter is living. In a rage, he dismisses Pumpkin’s mother and seizes their daughter, delivering her back to his expansive mansion in the country to be brought up by his wife. You might think such a move was admirable on the part Pumpkin’s father, intervening to rescue his child like that, but his wife would not have agreed. Her fury at her husband’s infidelity, so long suspected, now had a tangible target. And she would take aim each and every day, so long as the bastard child lived under her roof.

The interesting thing about this novel is that its protagonist isn’t all that likeable. As a child, Pumpkin’s defiant, bordering on nasty. Although you can clearly understand her need for retaliation, even respect her stubborn determination not to be cast aside, her actions make you cringe. Later, as an adult, she’s visibly broken, a paranoid and angry individual. She doesn’t trust anyone, least of all her husband, yet clearly she’s still tormenting herself with the guilt of past actions. And you can draw a straight line from the Pumpkin as a child, to the Pumpkin as an adult.

Then there is a war – it’s an African novel, what did you think?

The formula for books like this normally involve a fair dose of sympathy for the victim, a vulnerability that is impossible to question. And there is no doubt that Pumpkin is anything but a victim. But Banda-Aaku doesn’t paint any pictures in sepia around here. Pumpkin is real; a person whose tangled emotions find expression in predictable but sometimes shameful ways. However if Pumpkin’s not to blame for her actions, who is?

It’s easy to point the finger at the step-mother, that is, until you know her story. You can blame Pumpkin’s mother, but hang on a minute, what demons was she living with, that she would make such poor choices in life? Pumpkin’s father must accept some responsibility, and he certainly tries to. Should he not, therefore, earn some sort of reprieve? These are questions that Banda-AAku leaves you to answer for yourself.

The beauty (or should I say sadness?) of Patchwork is that it reveals a certain truth about damaged families, damaged children, up and down the country, all over the world: Everyone is at fault, but no-one thing or person is singularly to blame.

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Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Before I FallBefore I Fall by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first official foray into YA fiction, that is, since I WAS a young adult. I ended up here after reading (and enjoying far too much) “The Fault in Ours Stars” by John Green. Turns out the YA genre can be quite addictive – certainly far more entertaining from the periphery than it ever was when I was 16 and in the thick of it. It’s kind of like going to the observatory deck of the Bungee to watch people launch themselves head-first into the air. The uncertainty of not knowing if the rope is secure, mixed with the adrenaline of not caring anyway, because F&£* You, this is my life! is a cocktail as attractive as it ever was. As an adult, immersing yourself in YA fiction can give you the opportunity to appreciate the fear and exhilaration of free-falling all over again, from the safety of the cafe with a double shot soy latte and a fudge brownie on the side, thank you very much.

“Before I Fall” begins with (17 year old?) Samantha, who lives out an ordinary day in ground-hog fashion after her life (as she knows it, at least) ends in a fatal car accident. The day after the crash she wakes and experiences what can only be described as Dejavu on speed. Right from the alarm sounding in the morning through the to car crashing around midnight. Is she in heaven? Is she in a coma? Is she just dreaming the whole thing? These are the questions that float around as Sam relives the day, each time learning something not just about the people around her, but more importantly about herself.

Eventually, she comes to see herself as others no doubt see her – as a fairly shallow excuse for a human being. How did she get here? What can she do to change? Is there still time? If she could live the day again, what choices would she make? What would she do differently?

I could have been Drew Barrymore in the film Never Been Kissed (minus the nauseating fluttering lashes and I’m-sucking-on-a-lemon grimace that is), wandering around the school corridors listening in and watching on in ever-sickening wonder. Oliver captures everything from the cliques of bitchy girls to the rapture they feel for boys who are deep down very ugly, and on the surface also rather smelly; Oliver pinpoints the peer pressure, the senseless bullying, the in-group vs the out-group, the tensions at home, the drugs, the low self-esteem, eating disorders, the flow-on effects of divorce, etc, etc. In actual fact, now that I think about it, there’s not a whole lot to get nostalgic about in this book – unless your fondness for shopping, wagging and cheech & chong esque laugh-fests is more profound than is altogether healthy.

Despite the fact that the big themes are likely universal for most teens, culturally and socio-economically at least, I can imagine “Before I Fall” resonating far more with an American audience than it did with me. Having said that, it did make me pause to reflect on more than one occasion on the poor choices I made when I was Sam’s age. And no, I’m not referring to that infamous party I had on the roof. But hey that’s another story…..

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The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ever known someone so wrapped up in themselves that they cannot fathom a situation or circumstance where they are not the centre of all that is occurring? No, I’m not talking about myself. Someone who writes themselves into the starring role of every scene and plot twist. Someone so deluded as to be incapable of recognising that the icy chill of uncertainty (around why people did what they did, said what they said, etc) is not coming from any hostility from the supposed “supporting characters”, so much as a complete indifference about his/her existence altogether. In other words, a person whose own narrative is so far out on the periphery of someone else’s story that they don’t even realise that this is the case until they’ve lost both feet to frostbite.

This is the character Julian Barnes has given us in Tony Webster. Advancing in years and declining in social skills, which is to suppose he had any to begin with, Tony is compelled to take a trip down memory lane after he is bequeathed an unusual gift by the mother of a woman he used to date forty years ago. The contents of this gift (of which the most important piece was a diary) cannot logically be accounted for, much less the woman’s motives; and so begins Tony’s quest to fill in the missing pieces. All paths lead back to the tragic suicide of his best friend four decades ago, Adrian, to whom the diary belonged. Tony’s ex, Victoria, had been dating Adrian at the time of his death, a fact he had been less than enthusiastic about, to put it mildly. In seeking answers, Tony fails to query even the most simple, straightforward, arguably most urgent of questions, such as, for example, what role the mother had in all of this and how it was that she came to be in posession of Adrian’s diary in the first place.

Tony is the kind of guy you want to shake by the shoulders, to wave your hands in front and say “Yo! Tonz!! It’s not all about you!”. But bumble on he will, even allowing himself to entertain romantic notions about where his recently rekindled “relationship” with Victoria may be leading. Tony makes no attempt to provide an objective view on why that relationship failed back then, happy to essentially blame it all on her. Not surprisingly, he is none the wiser about her several decades later either. In other words, Tony is basically a self-centred pompous ass.

But here’s the thing; he’s an authentic pompous ass. He’s a real guy, I imagine that he really exists. Him, and dozens more just like him. He’s the guy who’s plodded through life, done alright for himself, ticked the boxes, crossed his t’s, stayed out of trouble. He finds women confusing, doesn’t know why his wife left him and is apparently uninterested in the answer, and ultimately decides that life is quite enjoyable on his own anyway, thank you very much. He has grandkids and a daughter who doesn’t have much time for him, but that’s life isn’t it? He can be a right pain in rear end if he needs to to achieve his ends, which is quite often the case. Take the time he used his slightly-better-than-average intellect to argue the point with an insurance company for example, a months-long campaign for the sake of principal and nothing more. “Eventually, exasperatedly, they proposed a thirty per cent reduction in the lime tree’s canopy, a solution I accepted with deep expressions of regret and much inner exhileration”.

But when you’re not being amused and/or offended by Tony, you can’t help but feel sorry for him – especially when he is forced to assess which memories he chose to minimise, versus those he chose to aggrandize. The jaw-grimmacing letter he wrote to Adrian when he learned of their relationship, vs the meaning of the the wink brother Jack gave him when Victoria remarked “He’ll do”. Still, it all comes out in the wash. And when it does you feel sorry for Tony again; because what relief he may have felt at not being anything like as pivotal a character in events as he might have thought, is quickly replaced by a kind of sad deflation that he really wasn’t as pivotal a character as he might have thought.

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The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, By Richard Dawkins

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really TrueThe Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to my 9 year old “everyone HAS to have a religion!!”. I’m not going to argue with him – we live in a country where we hear the call to prayer on average 5 times a day. It’s not so easy to compete with a reminder like that. Enter: Richard Dawkins for kids. Correction, “Richard Dawkins For Kids Who Always Ask Those Damned Difficult Questions”.

It’s definitely biased (would you have expected anything less?), presenting religion as just another fairy-tale or cutesy legend passed on down through the generations. I don’t think it needed to be quite so patronising in tone; there was a lot of scope to explore the reasons WHY different cultures may have used different stories to explain various phenomena of the physical world, which would have been incredibly interesting in and of itself – but that opportunity goes begging. However I doubt Dawkins would make any apology for that. The sole focus of this book is “reality”, science and the quest to explain human evolution in a manner that kids (and adults for that matter) can actually understand. The chapter “Who Was The First Man” is brilliant in this regard, and the practical mental exercise which prompts children to visualise the measurement of time going back hundreds of thousands of years is simple but incredibly effective.

In summary, I highly recommend this book be given equal shelf space in your kids’ home library, alongside any and all holy books that may also dwell in your house.

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