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Top of Our List

Zed book contributors review their latest gems, from a memoir about a male friendship to a Sandy Hook expose, with lots of mysteries, thrillers and romance in the mix / BY / July 15th, 2022


To take the guesswork out of your next selection, here are the books Zoomer editors and writers have read, loved and heartily endorse.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image.

1The Summer Friend by Charles McGrath

Home Base: Northern New Jersey and Southeastern Massachusetts

Author’s Take:  “I said he was what Romantics used to call a genius loci – the spirit of a place, its embodiment in a person… [in the letter] I wrote down things I had been wanting to say for years … it was too late. And possibly I said too little. This book is what I should have given him.”

Favourite Line: On what summer vacation is about: “A chance to reinvent yourself: to go barefoot, look up at the stars, read the books you always hoped to, and become the person – freer, easier, tanner, thinner – you were always meant to be.”

Review: McGrath, 74, a retired editor of the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, dedicates and writes this memoir to his longtime friend, Christopher “Chip” Gillespie, who died of cancer in 2015. They met at a local square dance in the summer of 1982, when their children were exactly the same age. Gillespie, who lived year-round in the New England resort town where McGrath spent summers with his wife and children, “had made summering into something like an occupation,” McGrath observes. Chapters chart a deepening friendship through life stages: young parenthood and careers, middle age and empty nests and, later, illness and death.

McGrath writes with great tenderness about their companionship – sailing, golf, swimming and eating together – and in later, more elegiac chapters, regrets not having the big conversation about their meaningful friendship when there was still time. And while The Summer Friend may be a sun-drenched and melancholy memoir about male friendship, it’s also about the ritualizing of idleness. Many passages in this ode to seasonal rhythms are simple and near-universal in their nostalgic, middle-class pleasures – reminiscences of balmy New England summers, children’s thighs sticking to vinyl seats on road trips, flashbacks to his beloved month-long summer vacations at a modest log cabin as a child, the glee of teenage pranks – and incredibly evocative. I found myself lost in reverie and staring into the middle distance of my summers past after every chapter of this unassuming book that resonates regardless of age or life stage. – Nathalie Atkinson


2The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards

Home Base: Lymm, Cheshire, England

Author’s Take: “I aimed to explore the notion of the ‘life of crime,’ in one sense by writing a sort of biography of this type of writing, in another by glancing at the rollercoaster lives of some of the most interesting crime writers,” Edward explains. “I hoped to convey a sense (paradoxical as it may seem for stories concerned with sudden death) of the sheer vivacity of this branch of fiction.”

Favourite Line: “Few authors earn enough from crime writing to employ a butler. Even fewer are victims of attempted murder. Mary Roberts Rinehart had the unique if unwanted distinction of being shot at because she had recruited a butler.”

Review: Learning about crime fiction or reading the stuff itself tends to be a dilemma for fans of the genre — at least it is for me, especially when it comes to award-winning British mystery novelist and internationally recognized crime fiction authority Martin Edwards. On the one hand, his latest Lake District procedural, The Girl They All Forgot, is the smartest fair-play cold case you’ll read all summer. On the other, his comprehensive book,  The Life of Crime, is the first major history of fiction’s most popular genre in 50 years (since Julian Symons’ Mortal Consequences). The former lawyer is prolific: along with Ann Cleeves and Cath Staincliffe, he’s a member of the Murder Squad collective of crime writers; he is a book critic; and he contributes to many crime anthologies. Edwards is also series consultant for the British Library Crime Classics reissues and, as a completist, I still keep my eyes peeled at secondhand bookshops for some of the out-of-print and forgotten early 20th-century rarities Edwards extols in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (The Golden Age of Murder, his study of 1930s Detection Club mysteries, is on my reference shelf.)

I’m recommending The Life of Crime because of how it is simultaneously ambitious, deeply knowledgeable and engaging. Edwards traces crime fiction’s development on a broadly chronological (and refreshingly inclusive) path, from the late 18th century to the present, uncovering similarities between the experiences of authors working in different styles and periods. The meat of the book tops 600 pages, with (thrillingly!) extensive and digressive endnotes about events that shaped the writers, and there are dozens of index pages of author names to pore over. And at the end, there’s a spirited defense of crime fiction’s pleasures and importance. Encyclopedic without being dry, the thematic chapters are perfect to dip and out of throughout the lazy season. Mystery reading kin, this is a must-read. — N.A.


3Esmond and Ilia by Marina Warner

Home Base: North London, England

Author’s Take: “I was advised by friends not to continue it as a novel, because some of the people were real people, and interesting in themselves, and I was persuaded by that argument – that my parents were of more interest as real people than they would be as fictional characters.”

Favourite Line: “If the ghost you want to speak to is your mother’s, then, like Odysseus, you try to touch her, hug her, but your arms clasp nothing but your own hallucinations.”

Review: Renowned for her work exploring the power of myth and female archetypes, the British novelist and literary scholar now reckons with her own family myths and legends through a portrait of her parents, in what she calls an “unreliable memoir.”

Esmond was an upper-class Etonian (son of the famous cricketer Sir “Plum” Warner) not much given to romance; Ilia was the gorgeous and penniless Italian war bride he met while serving as an officer during the Second World War. Warner foregrounds her mother’s experience, and the journey into the past begins with Ilia’s arrival to an altogether foreign London, where she lived with her in-laws, attempted to learn English and absorbed British customs while awaiting her husband’s return from the war. The impecunious young family moved to Cairo, where Esmond opened a branch of British bookseller W.H. Smith. (Underlying the endeavour is the casual confidence of British imperial arrogance, with a license to “sophisticate” Egypt.)

The substance of their early lives together – during first six years of Warner’s life – is a fundamentally unknowable past. But the author nevertheless excavates her vague memories growing up in her father’s Cairo bookstore before their return to England in 1952, forever marked by the sight of the shop burned to the ground. In its specificity, Esmond and Ilia is a finely textured reconstruction of a vanished, glamorous world of the cosmopolitan expat elite on the banks of the Nile. The terrain is true – the unhappiness, the infidelities – and the novelistic invention rings true as well.

Besides the details and expressive passages that vividly conjure the past (such as Ilia’s notebooks, where she copied out quotations about love from novels), what sets this memoir apart is its structure. Because her mother, who died in 2008, kept almost everything, Warner organizes the book through episodes anchored in recollections around objects (the book’s U.K. title, Inventory of a Life Mislaid, makes the conceit explicit). There’s Esmond’s art nouveau Egyptian cigarette tin, for example, and his collection of records, which spurs a long aside about Hildegarde, a performer he admired; Ilia’s bespoke Peal & Co. brogues, handmade in the 1950s, are part of the memorabilia of her ceremonial fitting upon arrival in London, and speaks volumes about assimilating into traditional English society.

As I mentioned in my recent In Praise of Summer Reading essay, this is the book I’ve been pressing on readers who loved Them, a similar memoir by Francis du Plessix Gray that reckons with personal history. — N.A.

 


4Counterfeit by Kirstin Chen

Home Base: San Francisco, Calif.

Author’s Take: “The heart of the book’s always been about two women subverting the model-minority myth.”

Favourite Line: “You Asian Americans are so sensitive. Us Chinese, we know the world looks down on us, but we don’t care! It only takes a couple of generations for nouveau riche to become old riche, am I right?”

Review: Ava is a high-powered, Asian-American tax attorney until she gives birth to a devil child, her mother dies three months later and the thought of returning to a life filled with billable hours makes her feel sick. Her marriage to her French-born husband Olivier, a transplant surgeon, is strained after he takes a job at Stanford University near Palo Alto, leaving her (and her long-suffering nanny) in San Francisco with nonverbal Henri, now two, who is either throwing a tantrum or recovering from one. (Olivier thinks his son’s speech is delayed because he is – or will be – bilingual). Enter Winnie, Ava’s former Stanford U roommate, who has transformed from a chubby, awkward teenager “fresh off the boat” from China into a sleek, chic woman with lash extensions, Louboutins and “an enormous Birkin 40 in classic orange.” Not only that, she has an uncanny ability to soothe Henri with Chinese children’s songs and the $600 fur charm she unclips from her luxury bag.

In the first part of the book, a detective interviews Ava about Winnie, who has a lucrative business buying high-quality replicas of designer bags made in China, “returning” them to unsuspecting department stores and pocketing the difference. In this way, Chen sets out Winnie’s working-class background in China; her abrupt departure from Stanford, which Ava and her friends assumed was because Winnie cheated on her entrance exams; how Winnie inserted herself into Ava’s life 20 years later under the guise of asking Olivier to help a Chinese friend get a liver transplant; and finally, how she cunningly played on Ava’s innocence and embroiled her in the fake bag scam.

The script flips in the second part, when the reader starts to wonder whether strait-laced Ava was in on the con all along. Chen reveals the racial bias implicit within the Asian American community and outside it. By the end of the book, in a twist you won’t see coming, she leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of anti-Asian racism and what it’s like to be a woman of colour in America, the capital of capitalism. — Kim Honey


5The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk

Home Base: Toronto

Author’s Take: “There are lots of dark corners for doing dark deeds in a place like a rare books library. There are some people who have some scores to settle … and of course you’re working around these priceless objects.”

Favourite Line: “Go into the stacks and get them something that no one ever gets to see, something Jesus or Shakespeare or Marx used to wipe his chin. Something transcendent.”

Review: This gem of a debut novel, inspired by a short stint its librarian author did at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, crackles with tension that steadily ratchets up from the opening scene. When Christopher, the venerated director of an unnamed university’s department of rare books, has an aneurysm, the president calls on Liesl, Christopher’s second-in-command, to open the office safe where her boss has secured his latest (uninsured) acquisition: a $500,000 Plantin Polyglot Bible from 1572, one of a handful of copies in public collections. Of course the safe is empty, Christopher does not regain consciousness and the president pressures Liesl to find the missing book ASAP so he can parade it in front of the donors who helped fund its acquisition (and will no doubt contribute to his multi-million-dollar expansion plan).

The reader is introduced to a ragtag team of department characters, many with a motive to steal the book: Francis, an Eton-educated expert who feels he deserves the director’s job; Dan, the disgruntled union rep who thinks the university undervalues library workers; Max, a Catholic priest who was dismissed from the church for stealing money and constantly undermines Liesl’s leadership; and Miriam, in charge of shipping and receiving, who goes missing after the Plantin Bible vanishes.

When the authenticity of the university’s one-of-a-kind Peshawar manuscript – an ancient Sanskrit text that notes the first use of a zero, laying the foundation for modern mathematics – is questioned, and another priceless book vanishes from the collection, Liesl chases ghosts, real and imagined, through the library’s spooky basement storage rooms and beyond to solve the mystery of the missing librarian and manuscripts. – K.H.

 


6The Good Women of Safe Harbour by Bobbi French

Home Base: Halifax

Author’s Take: “It’s a story about a really shy, anxious cleaning woman named Frances Delaney who learns she doesn’t have that much time to live, and she’s looking back over her life – a life that’s been shaped by really hard times – and she sees a life that she’s never wanted.”

Favourite Line: “I’d had little room for a single thought beyond how I would leave this world, but now I found my mind wandering back to how I came in, carefully cracking open the past like a spoon on an egg.”

Review: Frances Delaney is only 58 when she is diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour that will end her life in 10 to 12 months. She has a crippling anxiety disorder that never allowed her to reach her potential – once a bright student destined for university, she is now cleaning houses for wealthy clients in St. Johns. The narrative flips between the past, and her childhood in the fictional fishing community of Safe Harbour, and the present, where she bonds with her Edie, her client’s teenaged daughter.

The nuanced interplay between Frances then and now captures the beauty and ferocity of Newfoundland, where lives and livelihoods are shaped by the wild Atlantic Ocean and the repressive Catholic Church. When she is 11, her father – a cod fisherman – drowns at sea, and her mother “gradually returned to living, but she was unrecognizable to me.” Early in the book, the reader’s heart aches for Frances, who gets pregnant the first time she has sex, is banished to an inland home for unwed mothers run by cruel nuns and finds out her mother drowned herself while Frances was giving birth to a baby girl who is put up for adoption.

Frances helps Edie through an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, revelling in the chance to act as a surrogate mother; Edie helps Frances reconnect with Annie, the best friend she left in Safe Harbour 40 years ago, and tick off her bucket list of last wishes. After new clothes, a haircut and a massage, they get to No. 4. “I want to go home.”

French – a former psychiatrist born and raised in Newfoundland – draws on her background to imbue her characters with all the foibles the human condition can muster.  Her debut novel is dedicated to the women of Newfoundland and Labrador – “good as gold, sharp as tacks, and tough as nails” – evinced by the woman who took Frances in after her mother died; the social worker who tried to help her track down her daughter; her best friend, Annie, the missing link connecting her to Safe Harbour; and Edie, the light Frances needs in her dying days. The lives of girls and women are all here, broken open for the reader to see: Love, life and laughter, and their antitheses. — K.H.

 

 


7Mindful of MurderSusan Juby

Home Base: Nanaimo, B.C.

Author’s Take: “I knew I wanted a butler because I’m obsessed with butlers. And it occurred to me that butlers and Buddhists have some things in common … they tend to be centred and calm. That would be a wonderful quality in an amateur sleuth – that ability to have the ‘clear seeing’ – and have people open up emotionally just from your presence.”

Favourite Line: “Edna, like many white Western Buddhists, had a tendency to treat various spiritual practices like an all you can eat buffet. The results could be unsettling and even unseemly.”

Review: Traditional cozy mysteries are enjoyed for their appealing settings, hooky premises and engaging amateur sleuths, and Mindful for Murder delivers on all three. Best known for her humour writing (Republic of Dirt won the Leacock Medal for Humour and The Woefield Poultry Collective was a nominee) and YA titles, Juby turns her talents to crime fiction, playing with the cliche that the butler did it.

Her endearing sleuth, Helen Thorpe, has just graduated from the prestigious North American Butler Academy when she learns that Edna Todd, her former employer and mentor at a B.C.-based spiritual retreat, has died. A member of a Death Positive Club, it appears Todd has decided to “transition between one plane of existence and the next” on her own terms. Todd’s will requests that Helen “execute something she referred to as Plan B.”

Helen must return to the Yatra Institute, on a remote Gulf Island, to guide Edna’s chosen relatives through a program of spiritual courses (including meditation, movement and flower arranging) to determine who is best suited to inherit the retreat.

A quirky cast, humour and someone to root for are also key elements of a cozy, and Edna’s closest relatives provide all three. Spoiled, oblivious and highly resistant to spiritual growth, they bumble through the retreat’s courses. Helen, a butler who is also a former Buddhist nun (she worked as the retreat’s meditation teacher), handles them with equanimity.

Things get complicated when Helen finds an anonymous note claiming “Miss Edna’s death was not natural or voluntary.” Was Edna actually murdered? Is one of the guests the culprit? Who is the next target?

A fun escape with some real humour and Canadian content to boot, Mindful of Murder makes for the ideal summer read, and it may even make you want to start meditating. — Athena McKenzie


8Sandy Hook Elizabeth Williamson

Home Base: Washington, D.C.

Author’s Take: “I do consider Sandy Hook to be a foundational story of how we got to the world of lies we live in today. But I do see cause for hope.”

Favourite Line: “From a decade’s distance, Sandy Hook stands as a portent: a warning of the power of unquenchable viral lies to leap the firewalls of decency and tradition, to engulf accepted fact and established science, and to lap at the foundations of our democratic institutions.”

Review: The December, 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was a galvanizing event. The scale of the tragedy – the shooting claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators – felt, emotionally and culturally, like the last straw: something had to change. Surely now, I was not alone in thinking, something would change.

Something did change, but not for the better. As journalist Elizabeth Williamson documents in her powerful and difficult new book Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, within hours, rumours had started to spread in far-right circles that the attack hadn’t really happened, the victims hadn’t been killed, and it was a fraud designed to reduce the power of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). Those suspicions blossomed into an entire industry, and filtered into the mainstream. At the centre, driven by his own profit motive, was Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Williamson, a feature writer for the New York Times, didn’t cover the Sandy Hook tragedy; she was drawn into the story in 2018, when the parents of first graders who had been murdered sued Jones for defamation. She has spent years interviewing parents and first responders, tracing media coverage, exploring the black hole of the far right’s conspiracy theories, and even interviewing Jones himself, as part of her inquiry into how, and why, this spread of lies and baseless theorizing could have happened.

The result, Sandy Hook, is a powerful, if emotionally difficult, book. The opening passages, which document the events of Dec. 14, 2012, are particularly harrowing, but crucial, not only for establishing the facts in question, but for reminding the reader what is at stake, and what has been lost. As the narrative moves into the aftermath, the book itself becomes crucial: the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories set the pattern and laid the groundwork for ongoing attacks on truth, which have only grown more powerful over time (and spread into Canada). From the baseless cries about a stolen election to the 2021 Capital invasion to the easy lying we see daily – no longer contained to the fringes, but coming from some of the most powerful people in the world – it is clear we live in a post-Sandy Hook world. Williamson’s book is a clear-eyed, essential analysis of how we got here. – Robert Wiersema


9Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley

Home Base: New York City

Author’s take: “Maybe in fiction, it’s easier to be a little more biting about certain topics, such as romance and dating and how we’re all gonna die alone.”

Favourite Line: “In addition to the flings, I’d had about fifteen five-month relationships, not to mention the six- and nine-month relationships, not to mention the ones that came to life in the night like haunted toaster ovens: You up?”

Review: When readers first meet Lola, the protagonist of New York writer Sloane Crosley’s second novel, she’s having dinner with her former boss and coworkers from Modern Psychology (“the world’s preeminent psychological periodical”), which collapsed during the great media constriction that accompanied the rise of the internet. It’s a regular get-together, and one Lola always finds uncomfortable. But then, Lola finds just about everything uncomfortable: she’s engaged to Boots, who seems perfect on paper but Lola finds kind of meh; she’s got an editorial job for a website, which she finds, well, meh. In her late thirties, Lola has hit a frustratingly ambivalent stage of life, when nothing satisfies, but nothing grates enough to actually, actively change things.

But things do change for Lola, despite herself. That night in Chinatown, she runs into an ex, and they have an uncomfortable drink in a nearby bar. It’s not an ideal situation, but these sort of coincidences happen, right? You can’t live in a bubble – you’re inevitably going to run into an ex, especially if your dating history is as lengthy and varied as Lola’s.

But then, the next night, she runs into another ex. And then another. It’s clearly more than mere coincidence; just what IS happening, though, is too delicious a change-up to detail here. Suffice it to say, the book you think you’re reading turns into something vastly different by the end.

Cult Classic is anchored, through its shifts, by Lola, and her voice. The novel is snarky and sarcastic, funnily judgmental and arch, wry and wounding, with tossed-off asides like, “May our gaslights illuminate the bridges we burn!” and deeper observations like, “Back then, Vadis was still selecting bars with twenty beers on tap, populated by men who would be wearing their collegiate rings, who had already stretched their emotional bandwidth as far as it would go by listening to Wilco.” The novel is a delight to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis (although I feel somewhat personally attacked by the Wilco line). It doesn’t take too long – or a psych degree – for the reader to realize Lola’s outlook and her interaction with the world is largely defensive, a shell built to protect her from disappointment, but, like all shells, it also serves to lock her inside, isolated from the potential of the world. Perhaps Lola will find lasting change and will break through her ambivalence. You’ll need to read the book to find out. – R.W.


10The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart

Home base: Staten Island, N.Y.

Author’s take: “The book is about a lot of things – such as grief, facing yourself, and found family – but it also has robots and dinosaurs, because if I’m going to write about time travel, I’m going to have fun with it, too.”

Favourite line: “We return to the lobby and as we step off the elevator, another electric spark jolts my brain. Then three dinosaurs roughly the size of chickens run across our path, their black claws clacking on the unforgiving floor.”

Review: As soon as some readers hear the phrase “time travel,” they tune out. They’re not interested in science fiction, or they hate the complications and/or easy solutions offered by the concept, or they just don’t like it. Hear me out, though: if you dismiss The Paradox Hotel, the new novel from New York writer Rob Hart, you’re missing out on a treat.

The novel is set in the titular hotel a short distance from a timeport. (As something of an in-joke for geeks, wings of rooms are named after sci-fi icons Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood.) It is the staging area for super-wealthy tourists to take “flights” to particular moments in history, like “the first-ever public showing of Hamlet” or D-Day. Or the Triassic Period.

January Cole is in charge of hotel security, with jaunts into the timestream to prevent tourists from doing anything stupid – like preventing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – that would have cataclysmic effects on the future. As the book opens, her job just got harder: a blizzard has grounded all flights, which means the hotel is packed with disgruntled, wealthy and entitled tourists. And the timeport, owned and operated by the government, is losing money, so five bidders are descending on the hotel with their entourages to make their cases for ownership transfer (see above remark re: cataclysmic effects of messing with the timestream).

And that’s before the first murder, not to mention a body only Cole seems to be able to see, the ghost child wandering the hallways, the room that appears and disappears, and, well, the dinosaurs.

The timestream has become unstable. Past, present, and future are bleeding into one another, and it’s up to Cole to set things right, even as she struggles with her grip on time and her sanity.

This might sound a bit complicated, but it’s not. The Paradox Hotel is a bizarre, wonderful, compulsively readable novel, a seamless blend of science fiction, mystery, romance, conspiracy thriller, ghost story and virtually every other genre you can think of. It’s funny, fast-paced, wildly imaginative, and, surprisingly, genuinely emotionally affecting. It’s really everything you could want in a book. Plus, dinosaurs. – R.W.


THE SCROLL

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“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


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