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Review: The End of Plagues, John Rhodes

the end of plaguesDisease is a constant in our lives. For those who aren’t privileged enough to live or be born in a first-world country, disease and death is an even greater, every day fear. But many of these diseases are now preventable, primarily due to vaccination, and it’s the history as well as the future of this very modern medical miracle that Rhodes explores with this book. As an example, smallpox used to kill two million people or more every year. Now, it’s virtually extinct, surviving in just two known test tubes in the world. Rhodes starts with the pioneering work of Edward Jenner and moves through time to explore the discovery and science of vaccination, its history, and the current fight against some of the world’s fiercest diseases.

The End of Plagues was a fascinating and unexpectedly inspiring book. I had never really learned (or don’t remember) anything about the history of vaccines in school or otherwise, but I’m always interested in learning more about the world. This book spans the entire world when it comes to the history of immunisation and the fight to eradicate diseases. Most of the discoveries were made in Europe and in the United States, but the latter part of the book focuses heavily on the struggles which have and still are taking place in the Middle East and Africa to finally defeat some of the illnesses with vaccines. Disease is truly global and Rhodes looks at the entire world to get a clearer picture of where progress lies; it’s easy to forget that diseases we’ve obliterated from our own countries still flourish in others with many still suffering from illnesses we no longer see. But the progress that we’ve collectively made is astounding and it’s inspiring to read about so many countries coming together and choosing to protect their people and improve the world in the fact of extraordinary difficulties.

The history was really interesting too, although the book skipped around a little bit in the initial chapters which made it harder to follow. I got the drift quickly though, as discoveries came in hard and fast after Jenner first made his vaccine. One thing I was surprised to learn is the chequered history of older vaccinations. Because the vaccines were actually developed before the corresponding science, there was a huge amount of trial and error and it’s immensely safer now that we actually understand exactly what happens when a vaccine is placed into someone’s body. It’s a balancing act and in many ways it’s fortuitous that Jenner made his discovery exactly how and when he did (the book refers to this as serendipity and it resulted in a couple of discoveries). Vaccines are safer now, but despite the element of luck those initial vaccines and the ongoing campaigns now have eliminated scourges that have haunted humans throughout history.

Rhodes is extremely fair when it comes to understanding why people refuse vaccines for their children and even shares his own experience with doubt. Although links between vaccination and autism have been disproven, there is still a vocal minority of people who are firmly against vaccination for various reasons. While their children definitely benefit from herd immunity, these people open cracks in our defense against serious illnesses. Rhodes explores the history of vaccination and where those worries come from. In the end, though it’s small consolation to the few parents whose children do suffer side effects, vaccination has changed the world much for the better. The simple fact that children can play outside in midsummer without worrying about permanent paralysis or death proves this. Rhodes isn’t heavy-handed, but logical and understanding; worries are there, but he went ahead and vaccinated his daughter because he knew the consequences that ensued from a lapse in that “herd immunity”.

Definitely recommended – whether you’re questioning vaccination, whether you’re interested in history, whether you’re curious about efforts to cure current scourges (primarily malaria and HIV), whether you just want to learn something new. This is a book I’m glad to have read.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Arrow of Sherwood, Lauren Johnson

the arrow of sherwoodWhen Robin, Lord Locksley, arrives home from four years on Crusade, his family is astonished. His fiancée has become engaged to someone else, his mother has re-married a sheriff, and his estates have become entrusted to his young nephew, who has become the ward of the Viponts, one of the most dangerous families in Nottingham. They believed he was dead. Alive, he has to fight to regain what should be his by right. In doing so, he realizes that the Vipont family has been mistreating many of the lowborn families he grew up with; taxes are extremely high and the Viponts are closely allied to the Count of Mortmain, or John, King Richard I’s younger brother, who rules the country while his elder sibling is imprisoned in Germany. Justice is subverted and new laws are created to benefit the lords, not those who suffer under their leadership. Robin is convinced that something needs to be done, and as a lord without any of the benefits of lordship, perhaps he’s the one to do it.

The Arrow of Sherwood is written by a trained historian and it really shows in the best possible ways in this book. There are details which make it clear that this isn’t a tale of modern people in fancy old dresses or a gritty hack-and-slash which shows that the Middle Ages must have been brutal; instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, with scenes at court and scenes of battle and thievery. Johnson recaptures what sort of person Robin Hood might have actually been and the book’s realism, in my eyes, is a huge selling point and definitely set it apart. It’s also a bonus that this isn’t a book about the Tudors or the Plantagenets; it’s a realistic re-imagining of a legend and for that I couldn’t help but appreciate it hugely.

The book is well-written and takes us through Robin’s journey, which is fraught with twists and turns as he struggles with the almost insurmountable authority of the Vipont family. The book gives a really good idea of how much local families were stuck with each other; there are only so many people who have authority within a given region and if one person is higher up, that’s it for everyone else. Justice was a red hot iron pushed into your hand; if it was infected, you were guilty, and if it wasn’t, you were innocent.

The only issue I had with it was actually understanding the feasibility of the set-up behind Robin’s rescued prisoners. Towards the middle of the book we essentially have an entire “hundred” of people in a forest, masked as a leper colony, but one that no one ever finds except a couple of peasants and Marian and Elaine. In addition, Robin is juggling double identities and really doesn’t seem to lie very well. I had a difficult time believing he’d be able to keep the secrets with which he is entrusted and I didn’t understand why none of the Viponts ever think to follow Robin on his travels like some of the more minor characters do. The set-up seemed too convenient, although perhaps this is again just my modern brain not actually understanding the scale of a forest.

Definitely recommended for those who enjoy fiction set in the Middle Ages and, even though Robin Hood is a well-known legend, for something a bit different than the masses out there.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The King’s Damsel, Kate Emerson

the king's damselYoung Tamsin Lodge, heiress, is sent from the arms of her loving stepmother into the tumultuous world of the Tudor court as a teenager. She quickly realizes that her best option to progress in life is not to mourn for what she’s lost, but to seize the opportunity to gain the influence of powerful people. Her guardian places her as a lady of honor to Princess Mary, who Tamsin grows to love, but as the dynamics of power at court shift, Tamsin has to choose her loyalties carefully and decide what’s best for herself, her family, and her kingdom.

The King’s Damsel is a book that should appeal immensely to fans of historical fiction. It’s a richly written, intriguing story of a fictional girl trying to make her way best through a very hostile Tudor court. She’s hampered by her own ignorance, due to her upbringing, but she’s earnest and she tries hard to make a difference. She encounters a huge number of genuine historical figures and indeed has some basis in historical fact. Unfortunately, it was not a book that I personally enjoyed very much, due to three reasons.

The first, which is most certainly not the book’s fault, is that I still haven’t recovered any sort of desire to read fiction about the Tudor court. I overdid this years ago and it seems the desire to actually read these books has not come back. There are a few works of historical fiction which have risen above this, but I didn’t find this to be one of them.

The second is the fact that the back cover gives away practically all of the story, which I’ve actually omitted from my own summary above. I really dislike when this happens; a crucial plot point in the last third of the book really shouldn’t be on the back cover. I’m guessing someone, somewhere thought the book wouldn’t be as appealing to potential readers without this detail, but I spent most of the first 2/3 of the book waiting for that to happen.

The third reason is that I didn’t really get on board with the romance, which seemed too cursory and unrealistic given the actual status of the people involved. I wasn’t really convinced by it, and it didn’t help much that the book skipped years with mostly not much happening. I understand that maybe much didn’t happen, but it didn’t help power the book along at all, and it was a little hard to imagine how a romance happened if the key figures only saw each other once a year. A year is a long time.

The book is only 300 or so pages long and took me 5 days to read, which for me kind of demonstrates how disinterested I was in it. A lot of that probably isn’t the book’s fault – looking elsewhere, it’s had pretty good reviews. It is likely that this book, and this series, might suit someone who is still keen on Tudor historical fiction. But that someone isn’t me.

I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Spilt Milk, Amanda Hodgkinson

spilt milkI really enjoyed 22 Britannia Roadso I was particularly pleased when Spilt Milk arrived on my doorstep. In this historical novel, sisters Rose, Vivian, and Nellie vow to be spinsters forever. Rose has raised the much younger Vivian and Nellie since the death of their parents when both girls were small. When she passes away in 1913, much too early, the girls are lost without her, with no notion of how to care for themselves. As a result, one of them manages to make a mistake that drives a wedge in their relationship forever, even after they’ve seemingly reconciled. Years later, Nellie’s daughter Birdie returns to her mother’s town, looking for elements of her own past. Will she uncover the secrets that Nellie and Vivian left behind and expose the potentially disastrous mistakes of their youth?

Ignorance never does anyone any favours, and the sisters in Spilt Milk, along with their sole offspring, suffer from this very lapse. Because no one ever really tells them about what’s in the world, and their education is limited, with all of the girls instead mistakenly assuming they’ll remain spinsters all their lives, they aren’t sure how to handle themselves when things don’t go to plan. And so they make mistakes – and they’re not the first women to do so. In the early twentieth century, innocence seems to go hand-in-hand with ignorance. Rose makes the mistake of never telling Vivian and Nellie about men, instead trying to get them both to stay with her. When a man shows up, of course, they both act in a way that may have been prevented, if only they’d known.

The entire book spools out from the consequences of that ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s no surprise that, when Nellie then goes out into the world, what she learns helps her make a more successful life for herself, avoiding her sister’s mistakes and any particularly damaging ones of her own. As time goes on, the specter of the secret diminishes, because standards are quickly changing, through both World Wars as the sisters age. What was once a disaster becomes something just slightly scandalous and by the end of the book no big deal.

I quite liked this book; it put an interesting perspective on the relationships between sisters, mothers, and daughters. The complex relationships between Vivian and Nellie, then Nellie and Birdie, are often truly moving. I wasn’t sure what I wanted each of the women to discover, but I knew I wanted to experience it through the eyes of each of the women. Practical but still loving Nellie was my favorite of them, I think – she is the one who goes out into the world, and she is the one who has the bravery eventually to seize more of her life, rather than letting it happen to her. But my heart broke for all of the women at various times as they change and grow and the results of their choices impact every aspect of their lives.

Spilt Milk would be a great read for a fan of women’s fiction who is tempted to try out something historical. Highly recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Children of Liberty, Paullina Simons

children of libertyGina Attaviano is a fourteen-year-old Italian immigrant girl living her father’s dream when she and her mother and brother arrive in Boston. Their father Alessandro has passed away, but the rest of the family arrive to stay with a cousin and aunt in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They arrive in Boston Harbor and meet two surprisingly helpful locals, Ben Shaw and Harry Barrington, who lend them an apartment for the night. Both are from prominent families, but that doesn’t stop them getting involved with the Attaviano family; Ben immediately becomes infatuated with fourteen-year-old Gina, while Gina herself develops a massive crush on Harry, who remains aloof. Over the course of the novel, determined Gina decides to find a way to fit herself in Boston society, having discovered what she truly longs to have.

I’ve never read any of Paullina Simons’s books before and I have a feeling that I chose the wrong place to start. I was deeply underwhelmed by this book, having heard many good things about the author’s Bronze Horseman trilogy, and I’m now not sure I’m curious enough about what happens next to actually delve into that trilogy. I read this first as I got it for review and a prequel is generally not a bad place to start reading a series, but I think I should have started with Simons’s other books.

Let me explain why. First of all, the characters were simply not people I wanted to spend time with. Gina decides to go off and do her own thing, lying to everyone who loves her, from the minute she steps foot on American soil. She refuses to listen to any sort of logic and, in short, behaves like a reckless teenager. That’s fine – that’s what she is for most of the book anyway. But she also turns out to be a character who is impossibly perfect; she excels at school when she decides she should, she earns all sorts of mysterious extra money with her cleverness and makes herself beautiful clothes, she begs a loan to start her family’s restaurants, and every man who sees her falls at her feet, except of course Harry (until he finally does). She even somehow speaks perfect English, even though she admits in the beginning of the book that she hadn’t paid as much attention to her father’s lessons as she should have.

Harry, on the other hand, is an adult, but seems like he could have happily remained a child or student forever. He ignores all sense of responsibility and lets his life happen to him, rather than doing anything at all to influence it himself. He’s content enough, it seems, to be in a relationship with a well-bred girl he doesn’t love, to flounder about wondering what he’s supposed to be doing while continuing to study (and getting nowhere doing it), and living off his father’s money well into his twenties. Ben, his best friend, was far more interesting because he actually had a spine and went off and did things himself. When Harry finally makes a decision about his life, he hides it from everyone and creates a disaster. Twice.

Second, the book has little plot. Gina decides she’s in love with Harry and the rest of the book is spent on various conversations, political talks and meetings, and her often fruitless efforts to entice him. I felt zero spark between them, even when Harry finally wakes up and realizes that a gorgeous Italian woman has him firmly on a leash. The romance part of the book felt dreamlike and I had no real sense of why these two people had chosen to be together. It’s one of those attraction-and-nothing-else storylines which get on my nerves.

Lastly, much of the book is spent on little happening but talking. I’m normally fine with this and tend to even enjoy “quiet” books, generally because they have some sort of meaning. But here? Gina’s entire existence is focused around Harry; everything she’s done, everything she’s learned, has simply been to attract a man. So her ideals seem faked, while Harry hides from his life and ignores responsibility, spouting nonsense about what he believes in and failing to act on any of it. I just got fed up with them and with the book – after writing this review I’m actually surprised that I finished it.

The Bronze Horseman might be worth reading, but I’m not sure Children of Liberty is. If you’re interested, I’d recommend visiting your library first. That’s where I’ll be getting the rest of the trilogy from, if I decide to continue.

I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Noble Endeavours, Miranda Seymour

noble endeavoursThe histories of England and Germany have been intertwined for centuries. Among other things, the tie is in the very root of the words we speak, as the English language is based on a Germanic language, albeit with plenty of other languages thrown in for good measure. Miranda Seymour picks up the story of these two countries in the seventeenth century with the marriage of an English Stuart princess to the Elector Palatine, the son of a very different German landscape. From those nuptials to the end of World War II, Seymour picks up the story of these two countries primarily through people that loved and lived in both of them.

I had an interesting time with Noble Endeavours. I couldn’t say that I loved it unreservedly, because it had faults. As it’s set over a wide span of time, there were very many historical personalities introduced, and I for one found it surprisingly difficult to keep track of who everyone was over the centuries. I could have used some sort of guide to who was who in the front or back of the book, especially when some of those mentioned got married and their names changed. In places it felt scattered as we jumped from one person to another (who I invariably didn’t remember). This may have been partly my fault as I didn’t read the whole thing in one go, preferring to jump in and out over the course of a couple of weeks, normally how I handle non-fiction these days.

When the book was great, though, it was really great, and at times I could feel how some of these people were genuinely pulled between two countries. The best part was towards the end where we got to the World Wars – not “best” because of the circumstances, but because it gave me the opportunity to view the huge historical turning point from a new angle. And, because of the focus on specific people, we get a much more intimate view of the heartbreak caused by these divisions. Both World Wars were devastating events and this book brought more of that into focus through individual affected people from all sectors of society rather than a big picture view.

The part that I found most horrifying, actually, was how wilfully Hitler was ignored and even praised by Brits for revitalizing Germany when they had plenty of evidence of what his actual plans were. Part of that was due to the way the two countries had interacted for several hundred years, part of it was because those plans were well hidden on both sides, but it’s scary how many lives may have been lost because intelligence reports were ignored and insider knowledge was dismissed. And the price is still paid to this day.

Not a perfect book, but a fascinating one. I’d recommend Noble Endeavours for anyone interested in English or German history.

All external links are associate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Sum of All Kisses, Julia Quinn

the sum of all kissesAs his brutish father’s only hope for an heir, Hugh Prentice has not had an easy time of it, and when he got drunk and shot his best friend, his life got considerably worse. Now a cripple, he’s finally managed to get his father’s heavy hand away from Daniel Smythe-Smith, but has a lifetime left of loneliness to deal with.

Lady Sarah Pleinsworth’s first season was abruptly cancelled when her cousin Daniel was shot and exiled as her family went into mourning. She’s never quite forgiven Hugh for delaying her marriage prospects and making her cousins miserable; a series of disastrous encounters haven’t helped the situation, either. But when Sarah is forced into contact with Hugh at her cousin Honoria’s wedding, purely as a favor, she discovers that she actually likes him, and that his good looks don’t hurt, either.

Julia Quinn’s romances are always reliably sweet and, well, romantic. They rely much more on sparkling character interactions and adorable situations than any other author I’ve ever read; these are, for me at least, properly feel good books. And I approached this one in exactly the right frame of mind to need a pick-me-up with a romance I could get behind, without ridiculously high expectations. On this, the author delivered perfectly, and I read The Sum of All Kisses in one day, closing it with a smile.

One of the aspects I liked the most, as usual with Quinn’s romances, was in fact that interaction between the characters. Hugh and Sarah really don’t like each other at the beginning and had me wondering how they were going to believably end up together. But their dislike is based on fundamental misunderstanding and frustration due to the situation. As soon as they’re together for a longer period of time and have no choice but to talk to one another, the problems start to resolve and they realize that actually they do like one another. Those roadblocks they created were mental, and together they can overcome them quite easily.

It’s a classic situation where two people just don’t know each other enough, and make some misjudgements as a result, but then once they do know one another, things start to change. I loved the fact that they just enjoy one another’s company for a nice chunk of the book; they like each other and that’s one of the things I love about Julia Quinn’s romances. This is a perfect example of that.

The only part of the book I didn’t like were some aspects towards the end – I felt that a certain amount of drama was excessive and kind of unnecessary on the heroine’s behalf. All was quickly cleared up, though, and I did actually enjoy the ending.

Very highly recommended!

All external links are affiliate links. I received this ebook for free for review.

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Review: The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, Natasha Solomons

the gallery of vanished husbandsWhen Juliet Montague’s husband George leaves her, she’s trapped in a cycle of Jewish not-quite-widowhood. She can’t divorce him without his presence, as under Jewish law the man must divorce his wife, but until he dies, assuming she knows about it, she can’t marry or really even look at another Jewish man. In the conservative Jewish community of her parents, she’s just not treated in the same way as other women, made worse by the fact that she’s spent seven years as a single mother putting practicalities ahead of her artistic nature. When she turns thirty and goes out to buy a refrigerator, which she’s dutifully saved towards, she is instead captivated by an artist on the street who asks to paint her picture for the same cost. Juliet falls into a world of artists in 1960’s London, enriching her life immeasurably.

What this book is really about is how Juliet finds herself – still loving her children as much as ever, but redeeming her own identity as a person. She lost it so easily when her husband left simply because she had to. When she meets the artist, Charles Fussell, she remembers what she felt before she’d met George and regains a part of herself that she lost with him. Through meeting other artists, and eventually embarking on a love affair, she begins to re-discover who she is. This is cleverly symbolized by the fact that each artist she meets tends to paint her, capturing little bits of Juliets throughout her life.

It’s easy to relate to Juliet as a character. She’s not quite a pariah, but she is ostracized all the same. Her parents love her, as she loves her children, but she doesn’t fit in. It’s uncomfortable for her but it’s excruciating in some ways for her children, Frieda and Leonard. They are mocked by the other children for their mother’s status and because they’ve lost their father. Their eventually paths in life diverge but reflect how that struggle helps to form their futures. Frieda becomes a very traditional, strict Jew herself in the vein of her grandparents, while Leonard embraces his mother’s artistic leanings wholeheartedly.

As for Juliet, she does seem to find pieces of herself as she goes along. I got the feeling that wife and motherhood swept her away and her identity was lost to a degree in the search of promoting other people’s happiness. It becomes clear fairly early on why she started hiding pieces of herself away, but when George leaves she simply can’t gain the freedom that might have helped her on that journey sooner.

I’d probably only say that this book was a little bit slow; I actually read the whole book in one day, but split up by several other things. I never really felt glued to the page and I would have been able to set it aside for longer if I’d had to. It’s more of a contemplative book, rather than one with a fast-moving plot.

I enjoyed The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, but I didn’t love it quite as much as I did Mr Rosenblum’s ListI’ll definitely continue looking out for future books by this author, though. She has a lot of potential and she writes beautifully, with compelling characters. Recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: When the Marquess Met His Match, Laura Lee Guhrke

when the marquess met his matchLady Belinda Featherstone is a matchmaker; having made a very successful match herself as an American heiress to a British nobleman, she now guides young American heiresses on the social niceties of British society. In short, she teaches them how to make a catch, never mind the fact that her marriage wasn’t a grand success, because she’s determined to marry them off to nice men who will treat them properly. But when Nicholas, Marquess of Trubridge asks her help in finding an American heiress, Belinda is less than keen to help. Nicholas is exactly the kind of man she’d warn her heiresses off. So she sets him up with the most boring possible women, not only because he’s dangerous, but because she might just want him for herself.

I was pleasantly surprised when I first encountered Laura Lee Guhrke a couple of years ago; it’s been a while since she last released a book, but I’ve been catching up on the Girl Bachelor series in the background (typically, not reviewing them at all except for a mini review). I’ve really enjoyed every single book I’ve read by her and When The Marquess Met His Match was no exception to that rule.

One of the things I have enjoyed about the books I’ve read by Guhrke so far is the masterful way she builds the relationship between the characters. Neither Belinda nor Nicholas is precisely ready for their relationship to happen. Belinda has been so scarred by essentially being told she wasn’t wanted by her husband, with whom she’d fallen in love, that she can’t imagine herself ever feeling for a man who might treat her the same way. Similarly, Nicholas doesn’t really want to marry but desperately needs the money, and the last thing he wants is to fall for the matchmaker who apparently doesn’t have much money at all. Because of their misconceptions about one another, they struggle with their attraction, but eventually work it out for themselves. It all works so well and the couple’s interactions genuinely sparkle each and every time.

It’s also very amusing how Belinda works hard to put Nicholas off, particularly at the beginning when she’s determined to set him up with all of the least attractive women available. The balance between humor and more serious, romance-y scenes works really well here, and lightens the book rather than bogging it down with the baggage that both characters have.

A very satisfying read, and well worth it for romance fans in particular. Laura Lee Guhrke is becoming an auto-buy for me (and a very exciting find on Edelweiss in this case). Fortunately, I still have a considerable amount of backlog to get through before I have to wait anxiously for new releases!

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Mini Review: MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

maddaddamIf you haven’t read Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood, you should do so before reading this book, or this little review, as it may contain spoilers.

A small group of humans and “Crakers”, genetically modified humanoid beings created by Crake, have survived the devastating plague that has wiped out much of humanity. This book picks up right where The Year of the Flood left off and deftly weaves together the stories from those two books into one cohesive, fascinating whole.

I didn’t read Oryx and Crake when it first came out; I actually only read it because I got The Year of the Flood as a review copy. But I’ve been entranced throughout by the way that Atwood has constructed this particular post-apocalyptic world. I admired the world-building in the first book and the characterization of the second; MaddAddam combines these two aspects. These few remaining people are creating a new reality and new myths to support that reality. The past is important, but which elements of the past get remembered? It’s a key question in this novel as we watch what the characters to do to pass on those myths to future generations.

I’d highly recommend all three of these books; I actually suspect they’d be best read together in one go, which I didn’t manage to do. But however you read them, make sure you don’t miss this excellent trilogy.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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