The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo

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If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.

Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too.  Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.

Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it?  Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.

Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal,  a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days  he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?

The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.

Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Flatiron Books

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Sea Monsters: A Novel by Chloe Aridjis

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It was impossible to recall how those four syllables, Tomás Román, had once felt like an incantation, strong enough to hex school and city, the initials TR evoking the promise of anything, two consonants awaiting a vowel awaiting an act.

Luisa, 17 years old and living in Mexico City in the 1980’s is miserable among her own peers, a misfit whose musical tastes (Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave, The Cure, Joy Division) swayed me to request this novel. Enter Tomás Román, TR the boy who seems like a promise of something other, a boy who she didn’t even like but couldn’t deny being intrigued by as he began making appearances in her life. Tomás, that ‘sliver of black slicing through the so-called calm of the morning’ a proud drop-out, master of his days is everything she wants to be, fearless and free. It is with this teenage boy of 19 she runs away but it is the newspaper article she happened upon that inspires her to run to Oaxaca. A strange story about 12 Ukrainian dwarfs having escaped a Russian Circus, said to be headed to the coast of Oaxaca, finally something thrilling and exciting for her to latch onto. It is her idea to go, and so they do.

It takes quite a bit of time to reach that part of the story, trudging through their early days when he appeared on the scene, her father’s stories about shipwrecks and aquariums. The writing is beautiful, I highlighted like crazy but I spent a lot of time wondering when I would find something to latch onto. One can sense, as the novel finally gets more steam, the desire for flight and her struggle with shame for the pain her disappearance must be causing her parents and yet not caring enough to end her trip, wanting to claim her independence. She should be in the city, preparing for her future with college interviews, not going to the beach with a stranger, not worrying her parents whom by all accounts aren’t bad people.

On Zipolite, the beach of the dead, well-known as a dangerous place for swimming, a vagabond’s paradise, Luisa begins to be bored by Tomás  and searches for stimulation in other people on the beach, like the sultry stranger she calls the merman. Much like she did with Tomás, she builds a story about him, based on nothing but her longings. Mostly she spends her time suffering some sort of melancholy, absorbing the sun and ocean, not quite giving the cathartic effect most people experience beside the sea.

Aridjis nailed the listlessness that many teenagers feel, when on the cusp of adult decisions. The novel has a dreamy landscape, because half the time Luisa seems like a sleepwalker, unable to define why she has taken this out of character journey. She is mostly aimless through the entire novel, idleness would have been a grand title. I am still not entirely sure what the story was about, I confess. There is good writing, but I wasn’t fully engaged, I think I was still waiting for something to happen, which now that I think of it is exactly how it feels when you are a teenager, waiting for life to happen.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Catapult

 

AWAY! AWAY! A Novel by Jana Beňová, Translated by Janet Livingstone

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He’s growing from the most hidden and softest parts of my own self. Wild flesh. My own desire.

This is the latest novel from Jana Beňová, the Slovak author of Seeing People Off,  of which you can find my review here:  https://bookstalkerblog.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/seeing-people-off-a-novel-by-jana-benova/  In Away! Away! Rosa leaves her husband behind, the story is short and yet packs a lot of punch in the telling with a few pages of prose. There is a bit of her youth in snippets, such as how much she cried during her first days of high school. Of how yearning is born, be it for Paris (even if it’s just a city within herself) or red wine, cigarettes. Her frustration is evident in her head scratching and intolerance of all the cuckoos, those women who always have something to say, you have to read it. She seems hungry for escape, from work, from her husband, wishing only to distance herself from the struggle of adapting to everything expected of a woman. “And there’s the fear that someone will come along and utter the truth: she’s a fake.” An endless cycle of cuckoos.

Then there are the kisses from which she can’t catch her breath. She is Away Away and on the road, she can’t truly escape can she? She meets Pierre, who wants to join her and Corman on the road taking his puppet’s to put on The Snow Queen.  The characters swirl through Rosa’s mind, which character does she resemble, will she remain as wooden as a puppet forever, doomed to be imprisoned by the body of the man she loves, the memories that travel with you even if you attempt escape, because in the end there is no such thing, really, as Away! Away!

It is fiery passion always at the start of love and slowly, with familiarity comes the disenchantment, the want for freedom, to return just to the self again without the restrains of love. The writing is different from other styles and you have to really be still and quiet to catch what is being said. It is a bit like pillaging someone’s private runaway thoughts. Conflicted emotionally, striving for rebirth that never comes because once you’re hatched, well you’re hatched. I know my thoughts are running off the train tracks here, but it’s the mood I am in after finishing this unique book. The writing reminds me of someone purging their thoughts on scraps of paper and just walking away. I have to give a nod to the book cover too, it’s fabulous!

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Two Dollar Radio

Mother Country: A Novel by Irina Reyn

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She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood’s complex ecosystem.

Nadia splits her time as a Nanny to the privileged little girl of a Russian born woman who demands she teach her child Russian, even if she cannot speak it well herself and as a caregiver at VIP Senior Care, tending to the elderly.  Often feeling invisible in the eyes of her employers  “That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman’s eyes?” she pushes on through her days, biding time until everything she has worked for finally comes to fruition. Relying on Skype, Nadia can keep contact with her beloved daughter Larisska whom she had no choice but to leave behind with her mother in Ukraine, a fractured country that has gone to war. Larisska, feeling abandoned, has her own acts of defiance, barely coming to the video call, refusing to answer her mother about her  level of health, to say whether or not she is keeping up with her insulin injections but even that is preferable to the dead silence of unanswered calls and the fear that they could have died, and if they are alive, how will she get her medicine if everything has ceased to function? Then there is no hope as America isn’t granting asylum, everything on hold thanks to Homeland Security.

There was a time when Nadia worked hard as a  successful bookkeeper in Ukraine, a diligent employee who caught the eye of the married midlevel manager at their manufacturing company. A place where she was respected, proud to do her work, had her own routines like meeting up with her childhood friend Yulia and their old schoolmates often, then the brief affair (if a moment of bliss and passion can be called an affair) that leaves her pregnant with Larisska. Understanding that he will never leave his wife and children for Nadia and their unborn child, or acknowledge Larisska as his, surely he must know she bore his fruit, Nadia is happy just to be in his charming, handsome presence. She is sure that each extra kindness he gives her is his way of showing he loves her and knows about Larisska. Then changes begin in her country, subtly at first. Storefronts altering signs from Russian to Ukrainian, government documents changing to the Ukrainian language, soon currency being phased out and then, payment at work in mandarins. How is Nadia, a single mother, going to keep her child and mother alive on mandarins?

Her daughter Larisska, ” such an adorably willful little thing,” a neighbor once told her of her newborn was stubborn from the start, refusing even to nurse from her breast. Then, the diabetes diagnoses when Nadia couldn’t possibly afford the insulin. Their only hope is America, but the years pass and when it’s finally Nadia’s turn and her application is approved, there is a flaw in the plan, Larisska at 21 is too old (has aged out) to be approved. Nadia makes the hard decision to go anyway without her girl, leaving Larisska feeling at once betrayed and discarded. To Nadia’s way of thinking, it is the only hope she has of keeping Larisska healthy, her medication supplied and she will get her daughter to America, once she herself is settled in. Larisska thinks they should stay together, it’s too late anyway to move away. Nadia knows America is the land of opportunity, the prize! It is a hard transition, a land with so many different people of many colors, some she had only read about before, and at first, she fears them all but she has no choice but to adapt if she is going to get Larisska there.  America, however, has other plans. Applications continuously get declined and Larisska’s life goes on without her. With the fighting between western Ukranians, separatists and Russians her fervent prayers that they leave her homeland aren’t enough to make it happen, soon access to medication stops, and Nadia devises a brilliant plan to save her Larisska after a night out on the town with her friends. With no man in her own life, her thoughts are never focused on her own loneliness, and instead of love for herself, she will find a man for Larisska, in America! Mother knows best, always.

This is a story about mothering when you’re pinned to a wall with threats coming at you in all corners. When you don’t have the luxury of choices and war turns your world upside down, when I love yous aren’t easy to utter because you are just trying to stay afloat, love is obvious in your actions, don’t need to be stated. That sometimes in trying to be your child’s salvation, you may just forget that they too have plans of their own and time doesn’t stand still when you leave. It is terribly missing your ‘Mother Country’ while trying to adapt to your adoptive one, because the country you left never remains the same nor do the people you had to leave behind. It is about sacrifice but will it all be worth it in the end, will Larisska ever make it to America? Will she continue to resent her mother? Will Nadia forever be stuck mothering someone else’s child while her own is sick on another continent in desperate need of her?

I thought this was a wonderful novel, it is not solely about the immigrant experience, it is also about motherhood, and crumbs of love some people delude themselves into accepting, as we see with Nadia and the technolog (the manager who fathers Larisska). Nadia seems to spend much of her life making assumptions about people. She is a woman who really needs to learn to let go, that sometimes you have to just flow with what destiny has in store for you. Not easy when she has had to figure out so much on her own. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

St. Martin’s Press

 

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)

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“Nana. What else do you have there?”

Then the bundle burst into wails and frenetic movements.

“He’s hungry, boy,” said Nana Reja as she carried on with her constant swaying.

“May I see?”

As he unrolled the shawl, Francisco and his men at last saw what Nana had in her arms: a baby.

Their horror made them step back. Some of them crossed themselves.

An abandoned, disfigured baby boy mysteriously protected by a living blanket of bees is rescued by Nana Reja in a small Mexican town, October 1910. The woman as old and weathered as a tree, with a long, exhausting life a servitude behind her, has chosen to live out the rest of her days in one spot in a rocking chair outside the storage sheds on the Hacienda Amistead. Her past shed as wet nurse and caregiver for so many children that it’s hard to remember her own baby, so long departed from this world, it’s a miracle that Reja heard the abandoned child’s cries from under a bridge, so far away. It is ominous, unnatural! With fierce determination burning fire in her old heart, she refuses to budge in her plan and thus changes the course of the Morales family when she brings the ‘monstrous’ Siminopio infant home, demanding he is baptized despite the ugly, hateful whispering of the village that the boy is a bad omen. To some, like Francisco’s bitter employee Anselmo Espiricueta, he is “the devil”, will be the downfall of them all. Others are ashamed of their first reaction as they come to care for the strange child.

Francisco and Beatriz adopt Siminopio, whose bees beat within him as strongly as his own heart, guiding and protecting both he and the Morales family as he grows under their care. Soon there is war in their Northern Mexico, men of wealth are a prime target and with pretty young daughters, Francisco knows his girls must be sent away. With the war’s army wanting land, and taking his crops, he has time for his family now like never before and wonders if buying land is an answer.He begins to believe Siminopio and his bees are important to his family, for surely there is a reason he came. He will see that he remains unharmed. Over time the people who are a part of or near the Morales house come to get used to the boy, his deformity less terrifying, his affinity for nature making him a sweet boy one could even feel affection for. Unable to communicate due to his deformity, people underestimate his keen intelligence, his ability to see in others what most people overlook. It is not without sorrow that he lives his life in step with his bees, wishing with all his might he could sing or speak, express himself in ways most take for granted, but it is not to be.

It isn’t a story solely about Siminopio though, every character has their story told, like Beatriz and her youthful longing for a good, solid man for a husband  and finds the best partner in Francisco, so much luckier than other women of the times. But revolutions and epidemics have a long reach, she will endure as she always has, just like the times after the tragic loss of her own father, in years to come. She clings to the past, she is a loyal wife and mother but the fear of giving up her family lands, starting over in an unknown land, shucking off all the old traditions for a new way is not something she wants to entertain. Then comes the fever, and it comes for Siminopio.

Influenza and the Mexican Revolution rip through every character in this novel and no one is unscathed. When fortune takes a bad turn and illness befalls the people, there isn’t time to properly grieve. Survival swamps sorrow, when death is hungry and pity becomes a luxury, because you are all under the same threat. Soon there are more dying or dead than alive but through the stink of death, a miracle gives the people hope, even if the doctor doesn’t believe in such things. The Morales family line is safe, and they owe it to Siminiopio’s fever and Francsico’s swift thinking, abandoning Linares and it’s people just in time. This decision is their salvation, but also inflames an enemy.

It is a story of  one family’s evolution and knowing when to let go , even if it means abandoning the old ways, it is about seeing past your own nose, understanding that fear can cloud your judgement and that beauty and salvation are sometimes found in the strangest of places, and people. It is a window into how animosity is often easier to nurture than accepting  the nature of your own failings, as we see with the envious Anselmo. Tired of waiting for good fortune to smile upon him, disgusted with Francisco’s benevolence, with ‘hand outs’ and making due, working land that will never be his that seems to be taken over by orange groves, helping only the Morales wealth grow while his own life is consumed by loss, he devises a scheme of his own, nurturing too the hatred he feels for the ‘devil’ Siminopio.  It is a story of love, war, illness, nature, revenge and bees. There is magical realism with Siminopio and his beloved bees, but this is more historical fiction. There are many voices telling the tale, a lot of story to sort through but worth the effort. There is beautiful writing and wisdom within, I particularly delighted at the chapter about houses, how they “die when they are no longer fed the energy of their owners.” How houses leave echoes in us, as we leave echoes in them. The invisibility of old age, the ghosts of the past that visit us as memories, even the horrors of time, it’s all written so beautifully.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

AmazonCrossing

Lake Union Publishing

Miracle Creek: A Novel by Angie Kim

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Did he think so much had already happened that nothing more could? But life doesn’t work like that. Tragedies don’t inoculate you against further tragedies, and misfortune doesn’t get sprinkled out in fair proportions; bad things get hurled at you in clumps and batches, unmanageable and messy. How could he not know that, after everything we’d been through?

This is a wonderfully written courtroom drama that not only tugged my emotional strings but had its twist at the end. Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine (pressurized oxygen chamber) that gives new hope to patients with varied maladies. All seems to be going swimmingly, until an explosion kills two patients within the chamber during a power outage. Others are also left with serious injuries. A trial asks, who had a reason to murder the victims because one thing is becoming more certain, it wasn’t an accident.

Young and Pak Yoo are Korean immigrants, striving for success in America. Pak had lived without his family at first, knows all about sacrificie and struggle. Surely he had more than his fair share of hardship, yet he should have known better than, on that fateful day, to ask “What could go wrong?” as if like a command, because to the universe, it’s a challenge. On opening day with all the fresh faces of hope never could those patients, and mothers have fathomed what tragedy awaited them all. With a daughter of their own about to head to off college, are they capable of committing murders for insurance money? Especially when Pak himself and their daughter Mary were also injured? Then again, why weren’t the Yoo’s present when everything went wrong? Why did they leave the patients unattended? It seems everyone has secrets, the distance between Mary and Young has been widening for a long time, like Pak says ‘you always think the worst of her’ but could she be right? Since the accident, she is much worse, but there were things before, like her daughter ignoring her, being too good to help with cooking, cleaning. This better American life didn’t include Mary stooping to that, oh no, that was all on Young’s shoulders. Now her daughter is healing, but something inside of her is tormented.

The trial seems to be focused on Elizabeth ( the defendant) mother of Henry, now deceased, with a list of disorders from Autism Spectrum to OCD. The most ‘manageable’ child of all the patients with disabilities yet the most overwhelmed, resentful, exasperated mother who everyone could see was cracking. It is true, she sometimes hurt him, it is also true she pretended to be sick and went to ‘have a smoke’ instead when the explosion happened. Is it wrong that Young feels relief that Elizabeth is the focus of the people’s fury, that she is absorbing all of the blame? What about Pak? Yes, he made a mistake, but whether he was there or not, it still would have happened, surely he can’t be blamed? Right? He can’t see everything he and his wife worked so hard for as immigrants, all to give Mary opportunity in America disappear! They need that insurance money desperately, or they won’t survive. Matt is called to witness, not so surprising as he understands better than anyone about hyperbarics, holding an M.D. as he does and he was present, after all, a patient himself, taking part in the dives to help with his infertility. He can explain how the ‘submarine’ works, to the court, the jury. He has his own deceptions to hide from his wife Janine, riveted by his answers on the stand. All of this is stirring up weeks he would rather forget, but why?

More than anything, this story is a chain of events, if you remove one action, could the outcome have been different? Is there really just one person to pin everything on or are so many others accountable? There are many roads to guilt, and it seems here every character is on one. Is the truth always the only choice? Are lies as ruinous as facing up to one’s sins? There is a lot to think about here and depending on who you ask about just such a scenario, you’ll get a different answer. Elizabeth’s situation, and Henry’s, was a very difficult read for me. I’m still gutted! This was a very touchingn novel and I look forward to Angie Kim’s next! Not all courtroom dramas can hold my attention, but Miracle Creek balanced what lead up to the trial and the aftermath perfectly.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton Books

 

 

Who Cries for Mother Earth: A Novel by Margaret Hines

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I Am Yellowbird Woman. 

There are times when a vision is so powerful it can rest in a person’s soul forever.

Based on Lakota culture and spirituality, in Who Cries For Mother Earth, a young Lakota is mentored by Unci (Grandmother) learning how to heal her people. Zintkala Zi Win (Yellow Bird Woman) lost her mother at childbirth, her Grandmother (Unci) took her in and kept her alive for a time. Her father visited her, but she ended up in an orphan tepee until Unci came and took her in for good. A people of great warrior strength and spirituality, the Lakota once walked free giving care, medicine to people. One day her warrior father too went to the sky, her Unci would teach her the ways of medicine women, gathering roots, sacred medicines, understanding visions , giving prayers of supplication to Wakan Tanka (God) and listening to Mother Earth. Medicine is spiritual, not every person in a family is called to the healing. The Lakota travel tribe to tribe, offering great doctoring and spiritual teachings, known as the Brother Tribe. Before long, she meets her sacred animal, one that will be with her for life. While allowed to play, be a child, there is much respect and reverence taken when approaching the pejuta wakan.

The beauty of this novel is the knowledge and respect of the earth, of energies, of every living thing (which has spirit).  Noting with medicine work, due diligence must be paid to the emotional state of medicine women as they work with the plants, as energy is believed to effect the purity of the healing. Humility, peace and love are of most importance. Life isn’t easy for them, traveling place to place they deal with harsh elements, sickness. There is as much reverence for the animals, for the food they provide, the spiritual visions, messages as they have for human beings. There is never any waste. As seen as savage, she points out the true savagery is in owning and farming the land, wiping out native crops.  White men damming waters, no longer allowed to flow freely. People begin to ignore Mother Earth, to harm her. It is full of premonitions of destruction, war. Who will cry for her, Mother Earth?

The Lakota lived in Harmony until the white man resigned them to boxes, reservations. It’s a highly spiritual, beautiful book, not my usual read but something to chew on considering we all share this world and the harm being done to earth is harm to us all. There is beauty in respecting that the Earth isn’t ours, we are just visitors. We have certainly gone far away from the love and respect for nature, all things spiritual the Lakota chose as their way of life. A unique book about Native American Culture and Spirituality.

Publication Date: Available Now

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