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The King’s Deception by Steve Berry Blog Tour

The King’s Deception by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books; 432 pages; $27).

Steve Berry

Steve Berry

Cotton Malone returns in Steve Berry’s newest novel The King’s Deception and the stakes have never been higher.  I am a huge Malone fan, and I must say that Berry’s eighth installment in the Malone series is his best and his most controversial yet.  The King’s Deception made my heart pound, my pulse race, and my eyes go wide.  I predict all Malone fans will have similar reactions.

The King’s Deception is actually a flashback.  Malone relives an experience he had two years previously in a conversation with his ex-wife, Pam.

Not only does Berry focus on Malone, his main character, but he also provides us perspectives from a wide-range of narrators, adeptly and easily juggling a large cast.  The insight we gain from these multiple viewpoints enhances the tale and makes us aware of many things that Malone himself is heedless of.

It all begins when Malone and his son Gary travel to Europe.  Recent revelations have stunned the father-son duo and they need quality time together to talk.  In other words, their luggage is not the only baggage they carry with them on their trip.

Malone has also agreed to do a favor for his former boss at the Justice Department, Stephanie Nelle.  Accompanying Malone and Gary is Ian, a fugitive teen from England.

If you expect a smooth ride, then you’ve never read one of Berry’s Cotton Malone novels.  Nothing is ever as Malone expects it to be.  A simple favor leads to a showdown that evolves into an international incident.  At the heart of which is the terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103, who the Scottish government has agreed to release for humanitarian purposes: the bomber is dying of cancer.  Malone finds himself in the middle of a politically-charged environment, an area in which he usually shines and this is no exception.

It’s a formula that continues to work for Berry, who modeled his protagonist partly on himself when he first created his personality for The Templar Legacy.  Berry says he and Malone share a lot of attributes: “The love of rare books.  He doesn’t like enclosed spaces, I don’t either.  He doesn’t drink alcohol.  He has finicky eating habits, so do I.   I, of course, don’t jump out of planes and shoot guns at bad guys, so I live that through him.”  Berry is just as talented at creating his antagonists, such as CIA operative Blake Antrim, who shares a rather unexpected connection with Gary.

If the above were not enough, Berry goes one step further, introducing a mind-boggling but intriguing historical mystery involving Queen Elizabeth I.  The King’s Deception claims that Elizabeth was really a man in disguise.  And not just any man, but the son of King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son.  The real Elizabeth, according to Berry’s fascinating tale, died as a child and an imposter was put in her place.  The truth was kept a secret, especially from the king.

Bunk, you say?  Well, the story is tantalizing but not wholly implausible.  Berry thinks the myth is “both possible and fascinating.”  “The most wonderful fiction,” he explains, “always has a ring of truth to it.  Here, everything centers around the Bisley Boy legend.  Three years ago, Elizabeth [his wife] and I were north of London doing some publicity work for my British publisher when our guide told me about a local legend.   In the village of Bisley, for many centuries on a [certain] day, the locals would dress a young boy in female Elizabethan costume and parade him through the streets.  How odd.  I then discovered that Bram Stoker [author of Dracula], in the early part of the 20thcentury, also heard the tale and wrote about it in a book called Famous Imposters, which I read.   I then kings deceptionbegan to read about Elizabeth I and learned of many odd things associated with her.”  A story idea was thus born.

If this conspiracy theory were true, the implications would be vast.  Berry plays devil’s advocate here: “What does it matter if this thing happened in history?   How is that still relevant today? So what if Queen Elizabeth I was an imposter?”  “Actually it would matter a great deal,” Berry elucidates.  “Great Britain itself would dramatically change, and not without violence.  This possible ‘so what’ was such a threat that my British publisher asked me to tone things down a bit so we don’t provide folks with any ideas.”  Conspiracy theory or not, Berry offers readers something to ponder and even investigate for themselves.

With fast-paced action, fully realized and complex characters, and a brilliant mystery at its heart, The King’s Deception is an explosive and pulsing historical thrill ride—one I wanted to get on all over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanks for Your Service!

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (Ecco; 320 pages; $25.99).

 

            Good literature should test our limits and push our boundaries.  The best novels should force us as readers out of our comfort zones.  If those novels feature touchy subjects, then bravo!  Novelists should never shy away from any issue, no matter how much the topic makes readers or critics uncomfortable.  How better to ponder life’s big questions than in the pages of a book?  The novels that focus on The Way We Live Now and even The Meaning of Life are the precise ones that stay with us because they are so memorable.  For the rest of our lives, we remember what it was like to read them for the first time and the countless times after.  The best authors take risks and are not afraid of the repercussions.  Take John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, Yann Martel, Toni Morrison, Kathryn Stockett, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood, just to name a few.

That is what Ben Fountain does in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that satirizes warfare, football, and pop culture.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a literary tour-de-force and a modern-day Catch-22.  Not only is the story an entertaining, laugh-out-loud satire, but it is also well-written and brilliant.  However, as much as I loved it, I do not think Fountain’s novel is for everyone.

Fountain’s story takes place during a single day, over the span of a few hours.  It is Thanksgiving Day of an unnamed year in George W. Bush’s presidency.  The main character is Billy Lynn; Fountain tells the story from Billy’s point of view, often using strange bits of streams of consciousness and flashbacks.  Billy is one of eight members of Bravo Squad who survived the Battle of Al-Ansakar Canal, a fictional skirmish in the Iraq War.  Since a Fox News crew was embedded with the soldiers, the whole thing went live on television; Americans were glued to their TVs.  The Bravos became instant heroes and instant celebrities, even though they are ready for neither.

At nineteen, Billy is clueless: “Self-confidence has been a struggle these past two weeks, this sense of treating water way over his head.  He’s too young.  He doesn’t know enough.”  The reader cannot help but feel for Billy and for the rest of his squad.  They were only doing their jobs and do not see themselves as heroes.  For them, it is literally kill or be killed.

In a hilarious propaganda-like maneuver, the Bush administration brings Bravo Squad home for a victory tour.  Their stops are all in key swing-states for the Republicans.  Everyone wants to shake each Bravo’s hand, get autographs, and take pictures with the boys.  “As one trembly old guy in Cleveland” puts it, “Yew ARE America.”

The Bravos participate in an extravagant halftime show at the now-defunct Texas Stadium in a Thanksgiving Day game between the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears.  Destiny’s Child is scheduled to perform.  The Bravos are psyched at the prospect of meeting and greeting Destiny’s Child and the Cowboys.

As Fountain writes, “This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it…deep within the sheltering womb of all things American—football, Thanksgiving, [and] television.”

Are they being used?  Of course they are.  But the kicker is they know it: “Of course they do, manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?  Wear this, say that, go there, shoot them, then of course there’s the final and ultimate, be killed.”

The “party” cannot continue indefinitely.  In two days, the squad heads back to Iraq.  Unfinished business hangs over their heads, though.  Hollywood wants to make a movie of Bravo’s bravery.  The squad thinks big bucks are in their future.  For the duration of their victory tour, Albert, a Hollywood producer, has been on them like bees to honey.  Albert “is a man who direct-dials the likes of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones and whose movies have featured such money stars as Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, [and] two of the four Baldwin brothers.”  In other words, he is a mover and a shaker.

Albert believes in the film and in Bravo’s story.  So does actress Hilary Swank.  She wants to play one of the male roles in the film or even consolidate two soldiers into one character.  Bravo is not happy about this.  Not all of Hollywood is as enthused as Albert and Hilary.  Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have backed out.  George Clooney is a “maybe” and then a “no.”

Billy learns it is a Catch-22.  A star cannot commit to the picture until a major studio is on board.  Then again, a major studio will not give the green light unless a star is attached to the movie.  It is a paradox, “so perfect, so completely circular in the modern way” that all of Bravo “can identify.”

Fountain does a superb and funny job of spoofing Hollywood and movies.  But he does not stop there.  Fountain draws comparisons between the culture of warfare and the culture of football.  His assessment is interesting and surprisingly apt.  When the Bravos visit the Cowboys’ locker room, even they are intimidated.  “The players,” Fountain describes, “seem so much more martial than any Bravo.  They are bigger, stronger, thicker, badder, their truck-sized chins could bulldoze small buildings and their thighs bulge like load-bearing beams.”  The players crank Testosterone, “their warrior aura ramps up exponentially as they assemble themselves for the game.”

The players’ gear fills Billy with “shock and awe.”  When the team travels, loading and transporting their gear is akin to loading and transporting soldiers’ gear.  The support the players’ receive flabbergasts Billy.  The players “are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance.”  Billy arrives at a thought, “Send them to fight the war!  Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL!  Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys–how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans?”

As if reading Billy’s thoughts, several players are very curious about Iraq.  “Huh, fah real doe.  But like you ever cap somebody you know of?  Like, fire yo’ piece and dey go down, you done that?”  The players want to know what it is like to kill.   One of the players takes Billy to the side, “We, like, we wanna do somethin’ like you.  Extreme, you know, cap some Muslim freaks, you think they let us do that?  Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out.”  When Billy tells them to enlist in the Army, the players laugh at him.  They have a real job, they tell him.  Fountain truly is at his best here in his fine use of satire.

As much as I love this novel, I feel it is not a book for everyone.  Those with loved ones serving in the armed forces may feel offended.  You see, it is one thing to make fun of governments, administrations, Hollywood, football, and popular culture.  But it is quite something else to satirize wars in which people die.

I also fear that Fountain ridicules the troops.  In his book, the members of Bravo are often inebriated, stoned, sex-crazed, and vulgar to the point of profane.  Many, like Billy, are delinquents.  Billy is serving in the army to escape jail-time.  While his cause was noble, it was still illegal.  Billy is not the only person in his squad on the wrong path.  Perhaps Fountain writes it this way to show how the Army can make boys into men.  At least I hope that is his intention.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is not all spoof.  Fountain manages to give us some very serious and somber instances as well. Bravo attends the funeral of a fellow soldier and deals with protestors.  A member of their squad loses his legs.  Billy’s sister worries he will be killed and urges him to run away and hide out.  A waiter at the game thinks of joining the Army for the signing bonus since he cannot support his family.

Perhaps the most sobering of all: Billy and his unit worry they will not make it back home after their next deployment.   This is the best piece of literature on the Iraq War.  Yes, it did offend me at times but that is just the very nature of warfare.  It isn’t pretty nor is it neat and flowery.  If war literature should always be gritty, real, and memorable, then Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk is all these things and more.

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Spotlight on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

I began reading Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on Memorial Day.  I would say it was an apt time to read this book. 

Fountain sets the story on Thanksgiving when the surviving heroes of Bravo company participate in the halftime show of a Cowboys game.  Billy Lynn is in the center of it all.  Think of him as the quarterback of this game.

There is lots of comedy here.  Fountain also manages to give us some sober truths, too, about war, coming of age, and life.

The novel satirizes the Iraq War as well as our culture of war.  Fountain even compares our culture of war to the culture of football.  And he’s right.  Fountain’s brilliance really shines here.

But I have mixed feelings about this book.  Is he also satirizing our soldiers?  Because, at times, it seems he is.  I will delve deeper into this in my review.  But, as the daughter of a veteran, granddaughter of a veteran, cousin of someone who served in Iraq, I cannot help but wonder what our soldiers and their families think of this novel.

Great literature should push our limits.  For me, that is what Fountain does.  I love it, but, at times, I’m disturbed.  If you have read this book, did any of you feel this way?

 

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War Is Hell

The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (Blue Rider Press; 272 pages; $24.95).

            War is hell.  If you do not believe me, just ask Robert Bales, the US Army officer accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians, including women and children.  Bales suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition many servicemen and women face.  Although PTSD does not excuse Bales’ actions, it does help explain them.  Experiences on a battlefield alter a person.  How could they not?  After a conflict is long over, a soldier’s symptoms of PTSD remain and may worsen over time.

PTSD does not affect only those in the Armed Forces.  The condition also affects family members whose loved ones died in combat and even people in the countries we are fighting.  In his sparse yet elegant debut The Book of Jonas, Stephen Dau effectively gives us stories of all three grappling with the horrors of war.

Dau is at his best when he shows us the indelible damages war inflicts on us all.  The wounds left over from combat are not just physical, not just injuries, body counts, and ravaged landscapes.  The Book of Jonas zeroes in on the emotional, mental, and psychological scars that time will probably never heal.

That sentiment best describes Dau’s main character, Jonas, a troubled young man touched by unspeakable tragedy.  The US Army destroys Jonas’ entire village; he is the lone survivor.  A war orphan, Jonas comes to America to live with an American family.  While on the plane to America, Jonas is met with his first challenge: what to call himself.

Jonas is not his real name.  His given name is Younis.  On the plane, he changes it to Jonas; thus, he renames himself.  Instead of this being empowering for him, I see it as an example of just how utterly lost Jonas feels.  He is now disengaged from everything he ever knew and disconnected from his country.  His detachment continues.

In school, classmates ridicule and even bully Jonas.  To them, Jonas is just too different.  His accent, his ways, and his place of birth make him stand out in all the wrong ways.  Jonas is Othered.  When the bullying of his classmates turns violent, Jonas fights back.  His schoolmates do not get in trouble for fighting, but Jonas does.  The school forces him to see a psychologist.

Jonas’ visits to the psychologist, Paul, are a real boon to readers.  We learn more about Jonas as a result.  Paul gradually gets Jonas to tell us the full story behind the attack on his village and its aftermath.  However, Jonas is an unreliable narrator.  This makes him all the more interesting to me, but, as a reader, one must be careful not to take what Jonas says as truth.  His memories of the past contradict what really happened.  Jonas is clearly suffering from PTSD.

One thing is certain: after his village is bombed, Jonas retreats to a cave.  He is badly injured.  He almost dies.  An American soldier saves Jonas.  The kicker is that the soldier then vanishes.

Jonas learns the soldier, Christopher, is missing from a newspaper article.  Paul suggests it may help Jonas if he meets Rose, Christopher’s mother.  So Jonas travels to her home.

Rose is herself suffering.  She wants closure.  Her son is missing and no one, not the government, not the Army, and not those he served with, know what happened to him.  Rose only wants his body so she can mourn him.  Dau does not use Rose enough.  Her character shows us what survivors go through day after day as they struggle with the simple act of living.  Rose is desperate for answers from Jonas, especially after Jonas tells her the story of how her son saved him.  Jonas swears he does not know anything.  But is this unreliable narrator telling the truth?  What really happened to Christopher?

The character of Christopher is almost chilling.  He and his unit have been in countless battles against insurgents, and they have paid the price.  Dau uses Christopher’s diary entries to illuminate his intensity and his obsession with battle.  Christopher’s account is hurried and disjointed.  Christopher and his unit seem hungry with power; indeed, they are almost drunk with it.   Their bombing of Jonas’ village is an act of revenge.  Dau makes it clear Christopher has PTSD.  As I read his diary entries, I feel as if Christopher will ultimately commit suicide in the cave with Jonas.  Yet Christopher’s fate is one even I did not see coming.  I applaud Dau for superbly crafting an ending no one can see coming.

Dau’s portrayal of war is brutal.  It is almost as if warfare is as inherent in our genes as eyecolor and diabetes.  Early in the novel, Christopher describes a scene in Africa that forever stays with him.  A lioness had lost her cub and was bereft.  She was in a pack that had recently killed a gazelle.  A baby gazelle was then left alone, also filled with a sense of loss.  The lioness and the gazelle seemed to take comfort in the other’s presence.  The lioness mothered the gazelle.  Heartbroken, they adopted each other.  But it had been three days since she had last eaten.  The pack was hungry, too.  Animals get hungry and their survival skills kick in.  You can guess what happens.

The lioness and the gazelle adorn the cover of Dau’s book.  The pictures are more than just ornamental.  The lioness and the gazelle symbolize Christopher and Jonas.  They may, in fact, be a wider metaphor for warring countries.  The account foreshadows events that occur later on in the novel and strengthens his narrative in ways you have to read to appreciate.

In his timely, unfliching debut, Dau gives me much to ponder as he explores the high cost of war to both sides.  I recommend The Book of Jonas for those who enjoy Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke), and Megan K. Stack (Every Man in This Village is a Liar).  I come away with the knowledge that we are not doing enough to help those suffering from PTSD.  War does not only ravage landscapes; conflict also destroys people.  We should remember that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Bollen Knows How To Set The Mood

Christopher Bollen, Lightning People (Soft Skull Press; 368 pages; $25).

 

            Despite what many readers think, debut novels are not easy to write.  Common mistakes freshman authors make run the gamut from implausible storylines to stock characters to awkward dialogue to clumsy organization.  A good editor helps, but often a first-time novelist either has that certain something or he does not.  That kind of talent cannot be taught; it is innate.  Christopher Bollen proves with his debut novel Lightning People that he has that magic and then some.

 

Setting is not everything, but place ranks high on this reviewer’s list of what can turn a good book into a great one.  Bollen lives in New York City; thus, he knows the city well and it shows.  From the very first page, Bollen knows how to set the mood.

 

Bollen opens his novel with a very real phenomenon: lightning strikes.  Through his protagonist, Joseph Guiteau, Bollen writes, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen.  What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….”

To read more of this article, please go here.

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From Manolo to Gitmo

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry (Viking; 302 pages; $26.95).

 

In Alex Gilvarry’s first novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, his main character, Boyet Hernandez, is accused of terrorism and thrown into Guantánamo Bay.  The kicker is that Boy is a fashion designer from the Philippines who loves America and would never even hurt a fly.  Gilvarry uses irony and absurdity in his timely debut, while at the same time he shows the injustice of detaining and imprisoning many so-called “enemy” combatants who are anything but. Everything leads up to the “Overwhelming Event,” when government officials burst into his apartment in the middle of the night.

For the first 274 pages, Boy presents us a memoir of his time in New York City, the capital of the fashion world, and how he became a prisoner at Gitmo.   Boy, though, assures us he would never “raise a hand in anger against America.”  He loves America, “the golden bastard.”  It is, he surmises, where he is born again, “propelled through the duct of JFK International, out the rotating doors, push, push, dripping a post-U.S. Customs sweat” down his back, and “slithering out” on his feet on a curb in Queens.  Even after he is unfairly imprisoned, Boy still loves America and Americans: “And even after the torment they’ve put me through—tossing me into this little cell in No Man’s Land—would you believe that I still hold America close to my heart?”

Gilvarry gives us wonderful foreshadowing when Boy arrives in New York on September 13, 2002, exactly one year and two days after the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Boy seeks out the Statue of Liberty, that New York landmark symbolic of freedom for all.  His spirits slump when he sees “she was in mourning.”  A “black veil” covers the face of Lady Liberty.  The Statue of Liberty is undergoing restoration at the time of Boy’s arrival and is closed.  Therefore, Boy does not see her in all her glory.  She does not welcome him as he thinks she will.  This does not bode well for Boy.

More than anything in the world, Boy wants to become a great fashion designer.  He admires Coco Chanel and is a little jealous of Philip Tang, his rival back in fashion school in the Philippines who has made quite a name for himself in fashion.  Boy’s problem is that he has little money.  He meets a man in the same building he lives in, Ahmed Qureshi, who tells Boy that he is from Canada.  Qureshi asks Boy to make two suits for him; Qureshi likes the suits so much that he offers to provide Boy the capital he needs to start his own business: (B)oy.  Of course, Boy accepts.  Ultimately, Boy succeeds; his business thrives and anybody who is anyone wants to wear his clothes.

Gilvarry shows us the innocence of Boy, even in a city like New York.  Boy does not question where Qureshi gets his money.  When Qureshi obviously makes things up to explain away his business ventures, Boy accepts.  Boy desperately needs the money, you see, and how Qureshi gets it is of little interest to him.

One day, Boy goes to Qureshi’s.  He needs yet more money because Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman order a new line.  Qureshi has bags and bags of fertilizer in his apartment.  This would certainly tip me off, but not Boy.  It is almost comical how he does not see what is right under his nose.  Boy explains, “Now from the perspective of an innocent man—my perspective—there was nothing too unusual about this.  Ahmed always had things in bulk coming and going.”

Imagine Boy’s surprise when Qureshi is picked up for being an arms dealer!  But Gilvarry takes it even further.  Qureshi tries to save himself.  He is not a terrorist, he is not planning on blowing up America, oh no. Qureshi instead accuses Boy and tells the government that Boy is behind it all.  Qureshi claims Boy is masquerading as a fashion designer so he can blow up everyone during Fashion Week.  That Boy’s publicist is named Ben Laden does not help matters either.

And so it happens–in the middle of the night, government officials come for Boy.  They put a black bag over his head and do not ask questions.  Within just a few days, authorities have Boy in prison in No Man’s Land in Gitmo.  His cries of innocence fall on deaf ears.  His captors are convinced that Boy is lying and is, in fact, the mastermind of a proposed terrorist plot.  There is a lot of hilarity here, especially when Boy’s ex writes a play about him, starring Lou Diamond Phillips.

If the plot sounds absurd to you, that is the point.  The story is absurd and mirrors our recent history when this very thing occurred.  Gilvarry may write with irreverence but he also makes a statement, and a very strong one at that.  His use of satire works well here.  Boy, a diminutive fashion designer from the Philippines, who loves America, a terrorist?  The premise is almost laughable, but, in Gilvarry’s hands, it becomes more than simple comedy.  Boy symbolizes those non-enemy combatants thrown into prison and left there unjustly and without cause.  Gilvarry is not ridiculing the War on Terror; instead, he shows us how foolish our own government is to hunt down people like Boy when real terrorists run around freely.

Because Gilvarry structures his novel as a memoir, the book has all the elements of a real memoir: an introduction, footnotes, and an afterword.  Boy’s voice stops at page 274, and Gil Johannessen’s takes over.  Johannessen is the editor of Boy’s book.  I find I do not like the end of the book.  I miss Boy’s distinctive voice.  I do not know Johannessen; I do not trust him like I trust Boy; I do not connect with him like I connect with Boy.

Johannessen tells the rest of Boy’s story.  I wish Gilvarry had not chosen to end like this.  In the afterword, Boy has changed.  He has returned to Manila and is cross-dressing in an attempt to confuse anyone who might be following him.  Boy has been through a lot, and Gilvarry shows us how paranoid and afraid Boy has become.  He is not the same man who cut off the sleeves of his orange jumpsuit to make it more fashionable.

Although I do not care for the end, it does nothing to dampen my spirit for this timely debut.  Gilvarry proves he is an up-and-coming author with From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

 

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