Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Popular Fiction (page 1 of 4)

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Do you know how to play mahjong? I don’t, but I can tell you that The Joy Luck Club is structured similarly to the game, four parts with four chapters apiece to create sixteen interlocking stories. Granted, I only know that because I looked it up, but it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

The Joy Luck Club - Amy Tan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The stories revolve around eight women: four Chinese mothers, and their four American(ised) daughters. These immigrant families all came, from their various points of origin, to San Francisco, where they met at the First Chinese Baptist Church. Suyuan Woo is the founding member of what they call The Joy Luck Club (for which the book gets its name). It’s a regular appointment to play mahjong, feast on good food, share stories and celebrate being alive (and, later, play the stockmarket).

In the first section, we learn that Suyuan Woo has sadly passed away, and her daughter Jing-Mei Woo is taking her place at the mahjong table. She was once the wife of an officer, forced to flee her Kweilin home during WWII and abandon her twin daughters along the way. The three other mothers in The Joy Luck Club have equally sad stories. They’re all around the same theme, too: life is hard, tradition is good (except when it sucks), and kids are ungrateful.

The only narrative propulsion throughout The Joy Luck Club, really, is Jing-Mei Woo’s attempt to find the twin daughters her mother was forced to abandon decades prior. The other ladies of the club had a letter confirming that they were alive and safe, but they don’t yet know that their mother is dead.

So, eight stories, for each of the eight women. It was hard to place the stories as you were reading them. Aside from the respective character’s name at the beginning of “their” chapter, I found myself relying heavily on context clues to work out when and where each story was taking place (and how it connected to the other stories in The Joy Luck Club, though I’ll happily admit that sometimes that thread eluded me).

I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on China (or Chinese culture, Chinese language, Chinese tradition, the Chinese diaspora, Chinese medicine, or even Chinese food), so all I’m relying on is my gut feeling in saying this… but the stories in The Joy Luck Club felt OFF, in the way Tan depicted them. I struggle to put my finger on exactly why, but something about the characters and their lives on the page just didn’t feel authentic.

I read, after finishing the book, that although The Joy Luck Club sold well and was very popular with many readers, there were a number of critics who reproached Tan for perpetuating racist stereotypes about Chinese Americans. Frank Chin, one of the pioneers of Chinese American literature, attributed The Joy Luck Club‘s popularity to this pandering approach; according to him, depicting Chinese culture as “backwards, cruel, and misogynistic” guaranteed that the book would be received well by mainstream America. He also criticised Tan’s invention of Chinese “folk tales” for the book, calling them “Confucian culture as seen through the interchangeable Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese mix (depending which is the yellow enemy of the moment) of Hollywood”. Zing!

The mother/daughter relationships are well fleshed out, though – complex and multifaceted, an impression enhanced by the alternating generational accounts in the book’s structure. It’s a commendable representation of the search for identity and inherited trauma. Critics praised this aspect of The Joy Luck Club, with Nancy Willard saying: “Amy Tan’s special accomplishment in this novel is not her ability to show us how mothers and daughters hurt each other, but how they ultimately forgive each other.”

And, ultimately, I liked the philosophy of the club itself, the Joy Luck Club – making a space in one’s life to be deliberately, determinedly happy, even when the world is falling to shit. We could all use a bit of that, couldn’t we? Unfortunately, the titular club only really appears in the first couple of chapters of The Joy Luck Club; it’s barely mentioned after that.

All told, The Joy Luck Club wasn’t really what I was expecting. It was fine, I’m sure some find it deep and impactful, but it’s not one I’ll be thrusting into your hands or re-reading myself. In fact, I think reading the opening chapter as a short story by itself would make it much more powerful, so maybe give that a go instead.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Joy Luck Club:

  • “This isn’t advice on how to raise children.” – Lok An
  • “The kindle version sucks. You can’t even burn it for warmth.” – NYAAH!
  • “This book is the absolutely worst ever. The Dr. Seuss books are better than this. Amy Tan needs to step up her game because this was a joke. Some of these stories makes no sense and you can tell that Amy Tan was high while making this book. Needs to be banned from every bookstore around the world including Antarctica and North Korea. The Bible is miles better than this s***.” – Hans Guzman
  • “If you don’t know any Asian American people, you will love this book.” – nico

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

14th century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta wrote: “Nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese”. It’s a fitting epigraph for Kevin Kwan’s debut novel Crazy Rich Asians, an outrageous over-the-top satirical novel about the very richest Chinese families, first published back in 2013.

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Kwan has said that, in writing Crazy Rich Asians, he wanted to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience” – and try to bite back your jealousy when you hear that he loosely based the novel on his own upbringing in Singapore. While caring for his father (who sadly passed in 2010), Kwan began writing stories to preserve the memories they shared. Beginning with the chapter he called “Singapore Bible Study” (“an excuse [for attendees] to gossip and show off new jewellery”), he eventually developed the stories into a novel.

Crazy Rich Asians revolves around five central characters, though the full cast is huge. There’s a helpful family tree in the front to help you keep things straight, with hilarious footnotes (the footnotes continue throughout the novel, but sadly devolve into oddly patronising for-dummies translations of slang terms and descriptions of Asian cuisine).

Things kick off when Nicholas (Nick) Young, heir to the fortune of one of the wealthiest families in Asia, asks his ABC (American Born Chinese) girlfriend Rachel Chu to come to Singapore with him, to attend the wedding of the year. Singapore’s most eligible bachelor, Colin Khoo, is marrying fashion icon, Araminta Lee, and everyone’s going to be there.

Rachel has basically no idea about Nick’s family or wealth. As far as she knows, he’s a regular old middle-class NYU professor, like her. She crashes into this grand-wedding-cum-family-reunion completely unprepared.

Eleanor Young, Nick’s controlling mother, is one of the titular Crazy Rich Asians. She’s as obsessed with prestige and propriety as you’d expect a ridiculously wealthy matriarch to be. She’s terrified at the prospect that Nick might be serious about – might even marry – a girl no one knows, an American, from outside her close-knit circle of wealthy friends and families.

Eleanor hires a private investigator to learn more about Rachel’s past, hoping to use whatever she uncovers to prove to Nick that she’s not a suitable marriage prospect. Things backfire, in more ways than one.

And, as if that’s not enough, there are side plots galore. There’s Nick’s younger brother and his trampy soap-opera star girlfriend, who shows up to meet the family in a completely sheer outfit. There’s Nick’s cousin, who is baffled to discover that her seemingly-happy husband is receiving filthy text messages from a Hong Kong mistress. Colin’s wondering what the hell he’s got himself into with all these wedding shenanigans, and whether he can stomach the hoopla long enough to get Araminta down the aisle. And more!

Crazy Rich Asians is just as gossipy as Austen, with the same emphasis on class, lineage, and scandal. Of course, the volume is turned up to eleven, with jaw-dropping opulence in every aspect – designers, decor, and domestic help. In fact, Kwan has said that his editor asked that some off the more lavish details be cut from the story, as they weren’t “believable”; Kwan sent through links to news articles to prove that the families he’s writing about really do live this way. Truth is less believable than fiction, at least in this case.

It was fun to plunge into the glitzy world of the Youngs and the Leongs, but a couple of things held me back from enjoying Crazy Rich Asians as thoroughly as I would have liked. Firstly, the dialogue was quite stilted throughout, and tended to over-explain (I recall a similar issue when reading Kevin Kwan’s 2020 novel Sex And Vanity). Secondly, there was a shocking and unexpected scene about dog-fighting, which made my breath catch in my throat. Thankfully, it was called out by characters in-text, but it still felt really jarring. I skipped my eyes over a page or two, and went back to the glitzy fun I came for. (Oh, and another trigger warning, there’s a fairly detailed description of a pretty awful domestic abuse situation towards the end.)

Still, despite those issues, I can see why Crazy Rich Asians went gangbusters and became an international best-seller. Kwan capitalised on the momentum and released two sequels: China Rich Girlfriend in 2015, and Rich People Problems in 2017. There was a film adaptation too, which was widely praised for its carefully curated aesthetic and Asian cast.

All told, if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach, Crazy Rich Asians is a very safe bet. Be prepared to weep the next time you check your own bank balance, though!

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crazy Rich Asians:

  • “I would recommend this book to people who like flat characters, unrealistic dialogue, a love story with no spark, and a predictable ending.” – doodlenoodle
  • “if I could get the time back I spent reading this book I’d use it to watch paint dry, I’d enjoy that more.” – IL
  • “I get it. They’re crazy rich. Not enough character development.” – ST
  • “if you actually loved this book and found it funny and entertaining, then you must be as dumb as a bag of rocks. I’m no member of Mensa, but I can see that this book was written for the un-intellectual masses instead of people who actually enjoy fiction.” – RWK88205
  • “Regardless of the word “rich” in the title, this novel is poor, poor, poor.” – Margaret Grant

Instructions For A Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions For A Heatwave begins on 15 July 1976, and takes place over the following four days. The Riordan family is living through an unprecedented heatwave, with the accompanying drought and water shortages. It’s the third month of incredible heat and no rain – routine in Australia, where I’m reading, but a bit fucked for the characters in London. The heatwave, it turns out, is an obvious but well-written metaphor for the pressure cooker situation the Riordan family is about to find themselves in…

Instructions For A Heatwave - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The matriarch of the family, Gretta, thinks that it’s any ordinary day: her husband wakes up, goes out to get the paper… except he never returns. His disappearance is the catalyst for a family reunion, of sorts, as Gretta and her grown children come together to try and figure out what the heck has happened.

Each of the Riordan siblings has their own secrets and foibles that the others know little, or nothing, about (and Gretta’s hiding a few things under her hat, too). Michael Francis is a history teacher whose marriage is failing. Monica has two stepdaughters who hate her, and she’s questioning the choices she’s made to wind up in the role of would-be Stepford Wife. Aiofe – the most interesting character, to me – has always been the black sheep, which has made it easier to hide her debilitating dyslexia from everyone. She can’t read, and nobody knows but her.

Even though Instructions For A Heatwave is predicated on solving the mystery of the father’s disappearance, I found myself far more invested in whether Aiofe’s secret would be outed. Dad’s disappearing act ends up being somewhat beside the point. I still can’t figure out whether that was O’Farrell’s intention or not, but whatever the case, the complexities of these grown sibling relationships, and the difficulties of Aiofe’s hidden disability, are the most interesting aspect of the novel.

It’s particularly impressive how O’Farrell manages to unspool all of these narrative threads without getting them tangled. With interweaving backstories and multiple geographies (even though the family is based in London, they have carefully tended to their Irish roots, and Aiofe had “flounced off” to New York three years before the narrative timeline began), you’d expect things to become muddled, but O’Farrell does a remarkable job at guiding the reader through.

In real life, O’Farrell had some interesting things to say about the role of family in Instructions For A Heatwave, and fiction more generally:

In any home, every member of the family has a unique relationship with every other. Five people, locked together for an entire lifespan, add up to a complex knot of personalities, clashes, allegiances and schisms. Nobody knows you quite like a sibling or parent, and yet nobody is liable to misunderstand you with such conviction.

This is the endless fascination of family life, the desire to simultaneously run home and run away. Instructions For A Heatwave is a novel that revolves around the oxymoron of those urges…

Novels about family are sometimes referred to as ‘domestic fiction’; I refute this categorisation as it carries the implication that these are somehow small novels, dealing with minor human concerns. The family is far from a ‘small’ subject.

Maggie O’Farrell on Instructions For A Heatwave

Instructions For A Heatwave is my first novel by O’Farrell, and it would seem (from a glance at the blurbs of her others) that it has all the hallmarks of her fiction: family secrets, simmering resentments, and emotional claustrophobia. It slots into the middle of the Venn diagram of the “popular” and the “literary”, offering a rich family drama with a curious mystery to draw you in.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave:

  • “Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t pay much for it.” – Annie V.
  • “More should have been focused on Aoife. She was the really interesting person in the book. Although, I never figured out how to say her name” – Carol Miller
  • “An awful book. Irish twee story, only short of a few leprechauns. The mist annoying book I’ve read in years.” – Caroline Ryan
  • “I lived through the summer of ’76 and it was glorious but you would never think so from the characters in this book. The characters in this book are all self absorbed and incredibly unattractive, i couldn’t sympathise with any of them.” – MRS A L MASON

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini had been working as a medical internist for a few years in 1999, when he heard on the news that the Taliban had banned kite flying in Afghanistan. It “struck a personal chord” with him, given that kite flying had been his favourite sport when he was growing up in that neck of the woods. That chord inspired him to write a 25-page short story, which he eventually expanded to become The Kite Runner, his debut novel published in 2003 – the story of two young boys whose paths diverge after the Soviet military intervention, and the rise of the Taliban regime.

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The first half of The Kite Runner is set mostly in 1970s Afghanistan, and follows the strange friendship between two twelve-year-old boys. Amir grew up in a mansion, Hassan in the servants’ quarters. Both boys are motherless. Amir is a sometimes-cruel curious child with a distant but wealthy and powerful father. Hassan is his servant-cum-best-friend, kind and generous. The power in their relationship is distributed as unevenly as you’d imagine given its origins.

They are drawn together, aside from their shared geography and age, by their love of flying kites in local tournaments. Hassan is Amir’s “kite runner”; when Amir cuts down a kite, Hassan runs to retrieve it, seeming to know where it will land on instinct alone. At one particularly important tournament, Amir wins – the trophy, and his father’s attention, a real boon! Hassan runs to find the last kite cut, a great honour. Unfortunately, Hassan encounters the local bully, Assef, in an alleyway upon his return. When Hassan refuses to give up the kite, Assef beats him and (gulp, trigger warning, etc) rapes him. Amir sees what happens, but is too scared to intervene.

Naturally, this decision not to protect his friend haunts him. Amir avoids Hassan, and even goes so far as to plant a watch and some money under Hassan’s mattress to frame him for thievery, hoping it will cause his father to send Hassan and his dad away. It works, after a fashion, and they leave. If only Amir’s conscience was so easy to silence…

The second half of The Kite Runner follows Amir’s return to Afghanistan, some three decades later. He and his father fled to America in the 1980s. Their old family friend, Rahim Khan, begs Amir to return, to say farewell, as he is unwell and near death.

Of course, Rahim had an ulterior motive for luring Amir back to the homeland: he wanted Amir to find Hassan’s son, and care for him, as Hassan had recently been executed in the street by the Taliban, as had his wife. Ooft!

And the punches keep coming for Amir: it turns out Hassan was actually Amir’s biological half-brother, making his son, Sohrab, Amir’s nephew. Blood, water, you know the whole bit.

When Amir tracks down Sohrab, he finds that the boy was taken from an orphanage by a local Taliban leader to work in his house as a “dancing boy” (and subjected to awful abuses, it almost goes without saying). In a startling coincidence, that Taliban leader turns out to be Assef, the childhood bully-slash-rapist. There’s a violent confrontation, which leaves Amir severely wounded, but he and Sohrab manage to escape Assef’s clutches.

You’d think that’d be the end of The Kite Runner, but even after he recovers, Amir still faces an uphill battle to adopt Sohrab and get him back to the States. The process is so stressful for Sohrab, and he so fears ending up in another orphanage, that he (gulp, another trigger warning, hold onto your hat) slits his wrists in a bathtub. Luckily, he survives, but he’s not in good shape emotionally. The Kite Runner ends with Sohrab living in America, with Amir and his wife, but deeply depressed and traumatised by all that he has been through. It’s a resolution, but hardly a happy ending.

So, as you can see, the plot of The Kite Runner is almost Shakespearean, full of betrayals and daddy issues and blood that won’t wash off, set against the backdrop of war games that are larger than all of us. Amir only properly understands his privilege (wealth, security) in retrospect, narrating the story from the early 2000s (yes, September 11 comes in, towards the end). As such, it’s not until quite late in life – too late, you might say – that he can seek redemption and atone for the way he treated his childhood friend.

I read a review from Sarah Smith in The Guardian that said The Kite Runner started off strong, but Hosseini seemed too focused on fully redeeming his protagonist, which led to too many wild coincidences that allowed Amir to face his demons. I reckon that’s spot on; Hosseini lost me around the time he revealed Assef as the local Taliban honcho holding Sohrab.

Like Amir, Hosseini was born in Afghanistan but left as a young boy, only to return in 2003. Of course, every journalist he’s ever spoken to has asked him “how autobiographical The Kite Runner is” (as though that’s the only interesting thing about a man of his background). Hosseini has said “When I say some of it is me, then people look unsatisfied. The parallels are pretty obvious, but… I left a few things ambiguous because I wanted to drive the book clubs crazy.”

Ah, yes, the book clubs! The Kite Runner sold pretty well upon its initial release in hardback, but it wasn’t until it was released in paperback (the preferred format of book clubs) that it really exploded. It hit the bestseller lists in late 2004, and stayed there for two years. It’s still widely beloved, but not universally. The American Library Association’s statistics show that it was one of the most-frequently banned and challenged books of 2008 (with parents trying to remove it from school libraries due to its “offensive language” and explicit content). Plus, a lot of Afghan American readers have expressed anger at Hosseini’s depiction of Pashtuns as oppressors and Hazaras as the oppressed.

Obviously, I’m not really in a position to comment on that last point. What I can tell you is that The Kite Runner is a good read, and a newly-resonant one (given what has happened in Kabul these past couple of months), but there are too many convenient coincidences and foreseeable twists for it to really get my motor running. Go ahead and read it if you’re interested, but steel yourself for those trigger warnings I mentioned!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Kite Runner:

  • “a good gift to give! came in amazon condition” – leeann
  • “The writing is astonishingly bad. Clunky, awkward, amateurish. I winced and gringed all the way through.” – Greta F.
  • “I keep seeing the word “redemptive” used, but there is no redemption here. The main character attempts to restore hope and order to all the awfulness he causes by flying a kite. That’s not redemptive. That’s a hobby.” – Gregory A. Alan

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue – Melanie Benjamin

Whenever I find a book I really love, I find myself becoming curious about the author’s life off the page. That’s what drew me to The Swans Of Fifth Avenue (that, and a long-ago recommendation on a podcast, though I can’t remember which one – darn it, I really need to start writing these down!). In this historical fiction novel, Melanie Benjamin tells the story of how Truman Capote infiltrated, and then betrayed, the socialites of Manhattan’s upper-est echelons. After the riotous success of In Cold Blood, he found himself in need of a story, so he befriended the Ladies Who Lunch and then used their lives as fodder. Yes, that really happened, and Benjamin wrote a novel about it!

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue - Melanie Benjamin - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is exactly what you’d hope of a novel about 1950s New York high society: heavy on the sparkle and scandal, the gossip and glitz. This is back when literature was still glamorous and everyone knew everyone (worth knowing). Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wharton all get name-checked in the very first chapter.

Babe Paley is the Queen Bee of the socialite “Swans”. She’s a press darling, wealthy beyond measure, and transcendent with beauty. By any account, she “has it all”… so, of course, she’s secretly miserable. Her friends are phony, her husband a philanderer, and her material world is lacking any true love or respect.

Along comes Truman Capote, an impish gay (i.e., non-threatening) writer on the come up. He catches a ride on Babe’s private jet (well, her husband’s, and he – in fairness – was expecting “Truman” the former president, not “Truman” the cheeky ink slinger). Capote and Babe recognise each other as kindred spirits and become instant friends.

Babe brings Capote into her glittering world almost as soon as they land. She introduces him to all of the Swans, and before long they’re trading gossip and going on shopping sprees and getting snapped by the paps on the street. Babe entrusts Capote with her deepest, darkest secrets about her sexless marriage and search for meaning. (Spoiler alert: BIG mistake! Big! HUGE!)

Capote is quickly revealed to be a mischievous (at best) or malevolent (at worst) liar. He tells different versions of the same story: to Babe, he says his childhood was dreadful, but to Slim (her best friend, the brassiest Swan) he says that it was wonderful. He smiles and nods at acquaintances in restaurants, only to savage them to all who’ll listen as soon as they leave the room. He comes across as a pernicious little twit, but undeniably great fun to have over for dinner. One thing I did note as I was reading The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is that Capote is portrayed as a lot more boyish and vulnerable than he has been in other fictionalised versions of his life – I’m thinking mainly of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal in the film Capote. Only towards the end of the book did he morph into the bloated, desperate alcoholic that’s more familiar to me.

The publication of In Cold Blood is the turning point in his career, and his relationships with the Swans. Basically, Capote gets real high off his own fumes, and it’s not a graceful comedown. After the success of his true crime novel, and the big party he throws to celebrate his own triumph, he struggles to write anything that he feels comes close to the expectations (that he has stoked) of his adoring public and publishers. Lacking any other muses, he writes La Cote Basque, 1965: a very, very thinly veiled short story about one Lady Ina Coolbirth and her high-society friends at brunch. “The characters” trade stories and gossip about, oh, I don’t know, sexless philandering husbands and squalid one night stands.

Capote thinks he’s been very clever and literary, of course, but his delusion is shattered upon publication. All of his friends recognise themselves immediately – one socialite actually takes her own life after reading the story – and Capote is blacklisted. All of the glitz and glamour is torn away from him, and he can’t even get his former best friends to pick up the phone when he calls. It’s a tragic fall from grace, but one that feels very deserved.

Of course, the constant distraction of reading any novelisation of a true story is always present in The Swans Of Fifth Avenue: how much of it is true? (The same could be said of Capote’s work, ahem!) Benjamin addresses this in her author’s note:

“All of [this book’s] characters were incurable liars in life. This gave me quite a lot of leeway… All conversations are imagined, although some—like the conversation between Truman Capote and Liz Smith near the end—are known to have occurred… The timeline is faithful. The fallout from Answered Prayers is true to life. The relationships are real; in other words, Truman and Babe and Bill Paley were that tight little trio; Slim was Babe’s closest female friend… The emotions are what I imagine; the motivations and intent behind some of these documented acts. The facts are the bones upon which I stretch the fictionalised flesh.”

Author’s note (The Swans Of Fifth Avenue)

I was really grateful to her for providing this context – though maybe putting them in a foreword would have made it easier to focus on the fun imagined elements throughout, instead of stopping to Google each new character as they were introduced.

The Swans Of Fifth Avenue is highly readable, the same way that Prosecco is highly drinkable on a sunny afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed this delicious gossipy take on Capote’s misdeeds. Perhaps it could’ve been a little leaner, a little meaner, but it was great fun to read as it is. I’d recommend this one if you’re in the mood escape to a past when there were no Instagram or Twitter accounts letting the rich and fabulous “control their own narratives”.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Swans Of Fifth Avenue:

  • “I was lured in to read ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue’ by the subject and I expected some interesting and intriguing insights into the world of 1950s coming-of-age television and book publishing, with a tidbit or two, or 20, of the intertwining of Manhattan’s rich and famous, most notably Babe Paley and Truman Capote. That was not the case and this was certainly the wrong book for me to read at the end of life-sucking 2020. The key “swan” characters were an insipid group of self-important, vapid, whining gazillionaires with first-world problems that are common and trite.” – Cindy
  • “Mostly a story following Truman Capote and his “Swans”. He was a strange little man..” – Lisa Christian
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