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Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Thriller (page 1 of 8)

The funniest crime novel I’ve read since I discovered Christopher Brookmyre…

Hack by Kieran Crowley

hackIf you love Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane novels, you’re going to love this one too. Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning, which I read pre-blog,hooked me from the off – literally from it’s expletive first words! Hack begins in a dead-pan manner, but it is so tongue in cheek I was giggling by the end of the first paragraph.  As in Brookmyre’s debut, Hack features a journalist who gets sucked into a murder investigation.

F.X. Shepherd is no investigative journo though, it’s his third day at the New York Mail where he is the new pet reporter – writing a column called ‘Dog’s Breakfast’. It just so happens that the paper’s top crime reporter is on hols, and is also called Frank Shepherd (no X).  However, it’s the new Australian City Desk editor’s first day on the job, so the wrong Frank gets the call to cover a murder:

“What’s the story? What kind of animal is involved?”
“Damn. You’re bloody good. How did you know that?”
“Know what?”
“The pooch. Photo just heard over the cop radio a sec ago that some dog is guarding the body. Cops may have to shoot it. Top of the list right now, mate,” Bantock continued without a breath. “You know, ‘loyal pooch protecting slain master?’ Blah blah. Got a runner from the shack on the way with Photo but I need you on this right away. I want an exclusive break on this from you or I’ll know why not,” he concluded in a friendly, theatening tone.

He arrives at the scene on the Upper East Side and, identifying himself as an animal expert, “I’m Shepherd. I’m here about the dog.”, he is ushered up to the apartment by police eager to get the dog dealt with. There, he finds the naked body of a celebrity food critic’s husband with his throat slashed, a big chunk cut out of his bottom, and the corpse is garnished in parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese. A husky dog, called Skippy, guards the body, and Frank is able to calm him down and take him away from the scene, instantly gaining Inspector Izzy Negron’s respect.

Aubrey Forsythe, the food critic, is known for his hatchet jobs, having put many restaurants out of business. When it turns out that his last meal was sauteed butt cheek steak (he vomits it up when he sees the scene), he is immediately arrested – but Frank who is still there and sees it all, isn’t convinced, thinking that however hated Aubrey is, he didn’t commit the murder.  Frank gets the scoop, ahead of rival reporter Ginny McElhone from the Daily Press whose job is on the line after that – and she will do anything to recover the kudos. They meet in court at Aubrey’s arraignment at which celebrity lawyer, Roland Arbusto acts for him.

The clerk read out the charge of First Degree Murder and Unlawfully Dealing with Human Remains.
“How do you plead?”
“Totally, completely, without a shadow of a doubt not guilty,” Arbusto bellowed.

I guffawed. Simon Cowell has a lot to answer for!

The jokes come thick and fast. Aubrey is let out of jail to attend his husband’s funeral at the cathedral.

Aubrey cried what seemed to be genuine tears, and the TV crews went live. The priest proceeded with the solemn service, during which they drank blood and ate flesh, at least symbolically. Food for thought.

Skippy the dog had been put into a vet’s holding centre, and Frank persuades the police that it would be better for the dog to go home with him. This is where he meets vet Jane, and they hit it off right away, but their fledgling relationship is immediately put under stress when things always happen to Frank when they’re out for dinner.

Underneath all the comedy is a cracking contemporary noir novel, grisly and violent with a brilliantly twisting plot that keeps you guessing all the way through. It’s also a sparkling satire on tabloid journalism of the Australian-owned kind. Frank has to wear out a lot of shoe-leather as he gets more and more involved due to his owner’s demands, and his own new-found desire to solve the crime. Izzy, the cop, was sympathetically portrayed, a good officer who accepts Frank’s different eye-view of the case as vital to its resolution. Frank soon stops being a fish out of water, and begins to relish his new-found confidence as an investigative reporter, and who couldn’t love Skippy!

Crowley writes from experience, no research needed; as a crime reporter and investigative journalist for the New York Post he covered hundreds of trials and murders, in some of which he uncovered missed evidence. He covered the second Zodiac Killer ‘Son of Sam’ cases – serial killers are his speciality and he has written several true crime books on them.

I enjoyed this book so much, it’s going straight into my end of the year Best of… If you like crime with a sense of humour, you’ll enjoy Hack, and the good news is there will be a second Shepherd book – Shoot – but we’ll have to wait until next autumn! (10/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Hack by Kieran Crowley (Titan Books, October 2015) paperback original, 320 pages.

Between a rock and a hard place …

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango

arangoTranslated from the German by Imogen Taylor

At first glance, I thought this author would be female and Spanish/Latin. I hadn’t expected a German and Sascha is, I discovered, the favoured male variant of Sasha there.

This is the first novel by a prizewinning German screenwriter of crime dramas (notably Eva Blond apparently which ran from 2002-6). I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the blurb mentions The Talented Mr Ripley and Herman Koch’s The Dinner and that combo is fairly on the button as it turns out. The hardback cover says ‘Meet Henry Hayden – Famous Author, Loving Husband, Generous Friend, Ruthless Killer.’ It begins thus:


The ARC with black page edges

No getting away from it. A quick glance at the image was enough to give shape to the dim suspicions of the past months. The embryo lay curled up like an amphibian, one eye looking straight at him. Was that a leg or a tentacle above the dragon’s tail? (p1)

Henry Hayden is in a very difficult situation. He’s to be a father, but not with his wife Martha; the mother of the tadpole is Betty, his editor, who is sitting next to him in the car. Why Betty? Why not Martha?  It’s a real shock!

… then Henry opened the passenger door and threw up in the grass. He saw the lasagne he’d made Martha for lunch. It looked like an embryo compote of flesh-coloured lumps of dough. At the sight of it, he choked and began to cough uncontrollably. (p3)

He chokes again, Betty does the Heimlich and the lingering pasta comes out. He continues to panic. He tells Betty he’ll tell Martha ‘everything’. Big mistake!

It was Betty who had discovered Henry’s first novel Frank Ellis in the slush pile at Moreany Publishing some years ago, earning herself a promotion for finding it, and making Henry a bestselling thriller author, but …

Apart from Henry, only Martha knew that he hadn’t written a single word of the novels himself. (p10)

To say that Henry and Martha have a conventional relationship would be an untruth. They met when Henry had gone home with Martha after a party and discovered the manuscript under her bed, and more rotting in the cellar.

“I’m not interested in literature,” Martha said on the subject. “I just want to write.” (p17)

But she let Henry submit the ms under his name, and thus he is the one who becomes famous. He is the celebrity author on the festival circuit, wearing designer gear and driving an Italian sports car. Martha stays at home and every night, she writes, and writes, and writes.

So, we have a great set-up – Henry is completely stuffed! If he leaves Martha for Betty his literary career will be over; if he doesn’t leave Martha, Betty will tell her, and his literary career will be over.

I’m not going to tell you what happens next, save to say that it was an audacious move and as a result Henry gets himself into ever greater lies worthy of one of Martha’s thrillers to obfuscate and misdirect everyone.

This twisty thriller was great fun – full of black humour that made it more Koch than Highsmith.  Also, in loving Martha, Henry lacks the total amorality of Tom Ripley – there’s a little bit of Jeff Lindsey’s Dexter in him perhaps? There’s even something a little bit frantic and ‘Reggie Perrinish’ in Henry which, read in the week David Nobbs passed away, made Henry a more likeable sociopath!

There were some super set pieces including a fight with a marten hiding in the roofspace. There’s a shadowy figure from Henry’s past with a score to settle, Henry’s Serbian fishmonger friend is good value and the police are suitably shambolic in their investigations.  The Truth and Other Lies is a real page-turner, and I found myself wanting Henry to get away with it, so he could get himself into more trouble in a sequel?  (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. 

The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango, pub June 2015, Simon & Schuster, hardback, 352 pages.

Shiny Linkiness

SNB logo tinyI’m back to school today, so scheduled this one in advance. A post of Shiny linkness to my fiction reviews in the recent Extra Shiny issue of Shiny New Books.

Do head over to see the full reviews, and feel free to comment here or there. Thank you.

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley


A multi-layered tale of a humble telegraphist,  a bluestocking scientist and a Japanese watchmaker, set in Victorian London under siege from the Fenians. Despite its vestiges of Victorian steampunk fantasy, at its heart The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a thriller, a remarkably effective one that draws you into its world from the beginning.

It’s hard to believe that this novel is a debut. It is so polished that you will genuinely believe that a clockwork octopus is alive too.   (9/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

Last-Pilot-cover-RGB-667x1024Behind every test pilot or astronaut is everyone they leave behind each time they set off.  Set during the beginning years of the space race in the 1960s, this amazing debut novel tells of one such human story, that of a fictional family set amongst the real life test pilots and astronauts, and their story blends seamlessly into that of history.

This book moved and excited me in equal measure, and will definitely feature around the top of my year end best of list. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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All Sorts of Possible by Rupert Wallis

all sort of possibleThis YA novel begins with a sinkhole – Daniel survives falling into the sinkhole, but falls further ending up at the bottom with no way out except to follow the water. He scratches the word ‘Help’ onto a cave wall. ‘Please,’ he says – and finds the way out. He is the miracle boy – the one who survived. His father though, is in an induced coma, he may not recover.

Daniel discovers that his ordeal has given him a psychic energy that when another receptive person seeks him out and helps focus it.  Surely it could be used for good, but when gangster Mason gets his hands on Daniel, things get rather nasty…

A different kind of paranormal teen novel, I enjoyed this blend of psychics and sinkholes!  (8/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Which one of us do you love the most?

The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne

ice twinsI love a good thriller or psychological drama as you know, but in order to truly hit the spot they have got to be unputdownable, read in as few sessions as possible. The Ice Twins has that quality in spades, even if one of its central premises is slightly preposterous, but let me introduce it to you.

Sarah and Angus are the parents of six year old identical twins, Kirstie and Lydia. So identical in appearance, they couldn’t be told apart.

At first we differentiated our babies by painting one of their respective fingernails, or toenails, yellow or blue. Yellow for Lydia … blue for Kirstie…
This nail-varnishing was a compromise. A nurse at the hospital advised us to have one of the twins tattooed in a discrete place … but we resisted this notion, as it seemed far too drastic, even barbaric: tattooing one of our perfect, innocent, flawless new children? No.
… So we relied on nail varnish, diligently and carefully applied once a week, for a year. After that – until we were able to distinguish them by their distinctive personalities, and by their own responses to their own names – we relied on the differing clothes we gave the girls.

A terrible accident happens. One twin dies falling off the balcony at their grandparents’ house. Lydia was very unlucky not to survive the twenty foot drop.

A year later, having been through enough trauma to last a lifetime, plus Angus having to leave his job after hitting his boss, a lifeline emerges. Angus’ grandmother owned a tiny island off the Isle of Skye, it has an automated lighthouse and a large but decaying cottage. They can sell their London house and move to the island and do up the house. Sarah can write freelance and Angus can become an architect for home extensions. They can make a new life – Angus, Sarah and Kirstie.

Picking up Kirstie from school for the last time before the long drive north, Sarah asks her teacher about Kirstie:

‘Recently I’ve noticed that Kirstie has got a lot better at reading. In a short space of time. It’s a fairly surprising leap. And yet she used to be very good at maths, and now she is … not so good at that’ […]
I say, perhaps, what we are both thinking: ‘Her sister used to be good at reading and not so good at maths?’

This is the first inkling for Sarah, that Kirstie is confused over her identity, compensating perhaps for her missing twin.  They move north, and get stuck into renovations. One day Sarah finds Kirstie looking at an old holiday photograph. She is distressed and confused:

‘Which one is me? Mummy? Which one?’
Oh, help. Oh, God. This is unbearable: because I have no answer. The truth is, I do not know. […]
‘Mummy? Mummy? Mummy? Who am I?’ (p95)

Kirstie continues to behave in a confused manner. A few days later, it’s nearly time for her new school – and Kirstie claims that they have got it wrong. She is not Kirstie, she is Lydia. Even the family dog seems to agree. Sarah insists if she thinks she is Lydia, they should call her Lydia.

The strain on all of them rapidly starts to become unbearable, Kirstie/Lydia has a hard time at school, and Sarah and Angus are pushed into opposing positions. There are so many layers of secrets and lies, misunderstandings, skeletons to come out between the couple, not to mention Kirstie/Lydia’s continuing twin separation trauma. It is clear that each parent had a favourite twin too which adds yet another factor into the equation. It is supremely creepy and totally gripping. Narrated mainly by Sarah, it’s hard to tell whether she’s getting more and more paranoid, or as she uncovers details beginning to logically work things out. However, when Angus takes up the story now and then, we are presented with a slightly different picture. The reader’s feelings are constantly tugged one way then the other between the couple, and also over the identity of the surviving twin.

Of course all this is compounded by the move to the isolation of the island – it’s a recipe for disaster!  In the normal world, you’d rent on the mainland while builders renovate the house, and then sell the island or rent it out as a holiday home, wouldn’t you?  But this is a psychological thriller, and the protagonists never act logically. Angus has only ever been there during summers, many years before.  He’s never experienced the storms of a Hebridean autumn, never been stuck on a little rat-infested island in a cold. damp cottage with no mobile signal and only shaky connections to other services.

Each chapter is prefaced by eerie black and white photographs of a lighthouse , a cottage and surrounding views, the monochrome pictures adding eerily to the isolated atmosphere of the island. If you enjoy Sophie Hannah’s convoluted dramas and like a wild Scottish location, then The Ice Twins will be right up your street. (9/10)

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Having discussed the novel above, I want to talk about the author below – beware, spoilers

The Ice Twins is the first novel by S K Tremayne, however Tremayne is not a debut author.  Tremayne is the pseudonym of a successful author who has written a host of other books under their own name and another pseudonym – something authors often do of course,  when they write in different genres or for different markets. If I hadn’t done some research, I would have sworn that this novel was written by a woman but, (like S J Watson), Tremayne is male. It’s clever marketing – his bio is gender-free and I bet they didn’t put an author photo on the dustjacket of the hardback, (ironically, the press release does say ‘he’ in one spot – oops!). The paperback cover is also pitched firmly in the same market as cover quoter Sophie Hannah – at least they haven’t stickered it ‘for fans of [… insert current best-selling psychological thriller title here].

Tremayne has written several religious/archaeological thrillers as Tom Knox and, as himself, he wrote a funny blokey-sounding book about his experiences internet dating in his thirties; he used to blog for the Daily Telegraph too. He is Sean Thomas, and he has a famous author father – D M Thomas of The White Hotel etc.  Arguably, if this book had been published as by Tom Knox, a calculatedly masculine nom de plume, it would imply a different kind of thriller to The Ice Twins! So I hope he writes some more as S K Tremayne for I enjoyed this one a lot.

Do you like to know whether an author is male or female? Does it affect your reading of a book?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne – published by Harper Books (2015) Paperback Sept 3rd, 384 pages.

The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

It's a love / hate thang …

The Martian by Andy Weir

martianOne square in my Book Bingo card is ‘Hated by someone you know’.

That one was so easy to fill, for a few weeks ago my pal Simon Savidge tried to read The Martian and he ended up not finishing it when something in it tipped him over the edge: “That was it, I was done and frankly utterly furious. I threw the book across the room and gave up.” he said.

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian ever since it first came out – and I LOVED IT! It’s the perfect example of a ‘Marmite book’ and shows how different we all are as readers, and how the world would be very boring if we all liked the same things.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit that:

a) It’s not great literature;
b) It’s very nerdy;
c) The level of humour is at best ‘undergraduate’ (cf Seth MacFarlane’s tanker of a novel last year);
d) The women are token;
e) The dialogue is pure cheese!

BUT … it does have one helluva basic plot.

Mark Watney is assumed dead when an accident occurs before the Ares 4 Mission is set to leave Mars and return to Earth. They leave without him, not knowing he’s alive. How long can Mark survive? How can he let Earth know that he’s still there when all communications are broken? Will they come and get him before he dies?

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fu**ed.

The novel starts with just Mark telling us about his predicament in daily log entries – in detail. It’s lucky that he was the mission’s engineer, for he is a resourceful chap. Not only can he calculate his needs, he is able to juryrig equipment to make it work. His other specialty is botany – and he is able to make the sterile Mars soil fertile through the application of poo to grow the experimental seed potatoes they brought with them. In short he’s able to get air, water and food sorted to give him extra months of survival time. Now time to turn his attention to getting back in contact with Earth…

Eventually, someone on Earth (a young scientist called ‘Mindy’ – yes!) watching the satellites spots things happening on Mars – they can see that the mission’s abandoned rovers have moved. This starts the parallel NASA strand as they go to work to see what’s feasible and ultimately if they can rescue him.

That’s enough plot. I’m guessing that many of you will have seen the marvelous films Apollo 13 or Gravity; some of you may also remember Marooned (from 1969, made before Apollo 13 flew). You know the score – a book like The Martian is unlikely to take a philosophical turn like John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star or the daddy of them all – 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is perfectly predictable how it will end – it’s the getting there that provides the excitement.

Weir’s narrator does describe all the science and engineering he’s doing as he goes along at great length. To be honest, you don’t have to understand it, you just need to appreciate that he’s able to do something to improve his situation, you can skim the detail. Weir has clearly done his research for the science felt very plausible on the whole, although I wouldn’t like to have to mess around with hydrazine (N2H4, a highly unstable and flammable compound) the way he does – but needs must.

There are plenty of running jokes in Watney’s log entries. He has the contents of the Hermes crew’s personal downloads to watch and listen to, comprising mission commander Lewis’s disco music pplus lots of 70s TV series like The Dukes of Hazzard, he also has plenty of Agatha Christie novels to read. He takes the piss out of his erstwhile crewmate’s media choices constantly, laddishly – it helps keep him sane.

Where the novel is less successful is the parallel strand back home at NASA. This is hackneyed and full of stereotypical characters – no elegant vision of the Mission Control backroom from Apollo 13 here. We also get very little feel for the crew who left him behind, I’d have liked to get to know them better. The Martian was initially self-published chapter by chapter on the author’s blog before it got picked up and became a hit.

You have to remember this is a thriller in a SF setting, once we’ve got over the initial tech stuff – it does pick up the pace nicely, until everything happens rather too fast at the end – a common thriller trope (I hesitate to say common thriller fault, because sometimes you just want it to be over, so you can breathe again – whether in relief, horror or whatever.

The Martian film What was clear from the start was that The Martian would make a brilliant movie – and would you believe it, Ridley Scott thought so too. Matt Damon as Mark will be hitting our screens in late autumn.  Looking at the all-star casting, it’s clear that they are going to big up the parts of the Hermes crew, and particularly the two women (yes, the mission commander and IT officer are both women in the book too).  Jessica Chastain (Lewis) and Kate Mara (Johanssen) will surely demand more than the cameo they get in the novel.  Kristen Wiig will play Annie (NASA’s West Wing CJ equivalent); Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels will be amongst the NASA team on the ground too.

Yes, I expect I will be going to see it!

So, Simon and other friends who didn’t like it, my feet are firmly in the other camp.  For me, although it wasn’t perfect, it was plausible-ish, huge fun and a good thriller.  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Martianby Andy Weir. (2014) Del Rey, paperback, 384 pages.


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