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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Book Bites: 18 November

Published in the Sunday Times

The Break LineThe Break Line ***
James Brabazon, Penguin Books, R229

“Legally sane psychopath” Max McLean is suave and armed. He is such an asset to the espionage ecosystem that he’s a member of the elite intelligence operation referred to as The Unknown. But to err is human and when McLean cocks up an assassination assignment, he’s given one last task to prove himself. [Insert docket with TOP SECRET printed in big, fat, red letters here.] The gist of the mission is to travel to Sierra Leone to finish an operation which a former colleague of his – “the bravest man I know” – was unable to complete; so traumatised by what he witnessed that he’s been institutionalised. It’s a thrilling read and Brabazon revels in his depictions of the atrocities McLean happens upon (spoiler: it’s pretty sif), but the military references and lingo went straight over this peacenik’s head. Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

The Baghdad ClockThe Baghdad Clock ****
Shahad Al Rawi, translated by Luke Leafgren, One World, R285

Imagine living under constant threat of disappearing. Set against a backdrop of war and despair, the story starts in 1991 when two girls form a lasting friendship in a bomb shelter in Baghdad. As they grow up through two wars and unrelenting sanctions, we see the disintegration of their neighbourhood through their eyes and in their dreams. Nadia and the unnamed narrator try their best to go to school, apply for university, write scented love letters and live their lives, but it’s not easy when your foundation is crumbling away. Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Baghdad Clock is a deeply personal story that aims to capture and preserve the history of a neighbourhood. Anna Stroud @Annawriter_

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Holly Ringland’s debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story, writes Jennifer Platt

Holly Ringland, whose debut novel is a carefully woven coming-of-age story. Picture: Supplied

 
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart *****
Holly Ringland, Pan Books, R175

“In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire.”

This is the gripping first sentence of The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. It’s Holly Ringland’s debut novel. The breathtaking cover of arresting native Australian flowers matches the carefully woven coming-of-age story. Every chapter features a drawing of a particular indigenous Australian plant with an explanation of the meaning of the flower. Black Fire Orchid means “desire to possess”, Flannel flowers mean “what is lost is found”, and Foxtails mean “blood of my blood”.

In turn these meanings become the foreshadowing of Alice’s mostly unhappy life. Young Alice lives in isolation with her mother and her abusive, obsessively jealous father whose “eyes turn black with rage”. She has seen no one besides her parents – they stay far from the madding crowd in a cottage near the sea and sugarcane fields. The only relief she has is her beach that she considers her refuge, her books and her dog Toby.

Then fire does come and consumes all that Alice knows. Injured and unable to talk, she has to go and live with June, a grandmother she never knew she had. June takes her to Thornfield, an indigenous flower farm that is inland, far away from Alice’s beloved sea.

Here Alice heals and learns about the meaning of flowers that surround her and who the dungareed Flowers are; the gentle women that her gran has taken in who happily spend days in the fields tending the precious blooms. But no matter how hard June tries and how many times Alice asks her, June can’t get herself to tell her the horrible truth about Clem, her father.

Alice, now 26 years old, learns sharply about betrayal. She flees the farm and ends up at Kililpitjara National Park where the sacred Sturt’s Desert Peas grow. This strange blood red plant’s meaning is “have courage, take heart”. Unprotected and raw, Alice finds herself in the same situation as her mother and has to find the fortitude to leave.

Ringland, who says she grew up wild and barefoot in her mother’s garden in northern Australia, not only delivers a modern fairytale with poignancy, sadness and most importantly hope, she gives a rare insight to the wondrous and different landscapes that Australia has to offer that is more than just dusty deserts, wild dingoes, nosy neighbours and surfer dudes. @Jenniferdplatt

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Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel a web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, writes Ken Barris

The Quiet Side of Passion ****
Alexander McCall Smith, Little Brown, R265

The Quiet Side of Passion is one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Isabel is a mom, spouse, editor of a philosophical journal, and an incurable busybody. She is married to the gentlest, kindest, most humorous musician of a husband, Jamie, who loses his temper only once in the novel, and then very mildly.

He also turns down his chance to say “I told you so”. They share their house with their young children Magnus and Charlie, who are more seen than heard, which is a good thing because they are not convincing.

More to the point, Isabel’s life is shared with a cast of several: her self-centred niece Cat, the comically dour housekeeper Grace, the annoying Professor Lettuce, and certain strangers and newcomers who drive the story, insofar as there is one.

I went through a few transformations on reading this novel. Initially, enjoyment – there is much to enjoy in the form of elegant writing and lightly intelligent humour, agreeable and mostly well-drawn characters, and Isabel’s strange mixture of constant self-questioning, self-restraint, and impulsiveness.

Quiet Side is also that old-fashioned thing, a novel of manners. The characters are enmeshed in a network of restrictive social mores, defined (in an undefined way) by what one does and doesn’t do; it is a relief that Isabel sometimes does what one doesn’t. Though set in Edinburgh, it is really a portrait of English middle-class conventionality.

Later on, I began to think of it as Jane Austen Lite. A delicate web of mild desire, observation, constraint, delicacy and discreet disruption, unfortunately more quiet than passionate. Then with 76 pages to go, I began to wonder what it was about.

The nuts and bolts of the tale are provided by strangers and newcomers.

Claire Richardson is Isabel’s new editorial assistant. She is beautiful, but rather too strongly linked with Professor Lettuce, who is wont to intrude unwanted on Isabel’s editorial duties.

Antonia is the new Italian au pair. She is vivacious and full of enterprise, especially when it comes to men.

Isabel meets Patricia, a mother she encounters at young Charlie’s school, who both intrigues and annoys her. There are two threatening men who give Isabel a bad turn each, and there is Leo, Cat’s leonine boyfriend, who saves the day.

The plot revolves around Isabel’s interaction with these characters.

Claire turns out to be unsuitable, and soon so does Antonia, both for reasons of highly unsuitable love. They are dismissed without playing a major role in the narrative, though they take up a fair amount of space. Isabel learns that Patricia claims child maintenance from a man who might not be the father of her child. Being incurable, Isabel is driven to solve this mystery, which generates most of the fizz in the tale, though things go – well, not quite horribly wrong, just wrong.

Hence my puzzlement with 76 pages to go. The various threads were woven together (or almost together) deftly enough, and even at this point, I was confident that a satisfactory conclusion would be reached. And in fact it was – all mysteries were solved, threats vanquished, and a happy ending trotted out at the last minute. But I wasn’t sure that it added up to anything entirely coherent or worth saying, other than all’s well that ends well.

Despite this, I found the book entertaining and its understated humour diverting. For holiday reading or relief from our force-fed diet of political angst, The Quiet Side of Passion is highly recommended.

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Book Bites: 11 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Mirror Cracked ***
Raashida Khan, Kwarts, R250

Azraa Hassim has the perfect life: successful career, a loving husband and two wonderful daughters. Her entire identity, however, is put to question when one of her children is diagnosed with a terminal illness, while her husband’s secrets come out of the closet. Khan has created a narrative that bluntly tackles subjects that are often considered taboo in Muslim society. A book whose strength lies in the conversations that it ignites after the final page is read. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

War on Peace ****
Ronan Farrow, HarperCollins, R320

Well-known investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Ronan Farrow has written a must-read for 2018 and beyond. Farrow investigates the effects that the changes in US foreign policy have had on the world. Although there are many personal stories interspersed between the revelations, the decline of international diplomacy that Farrow argues is certainly not overshadowed. Farrow contends that Bill Clinton’s focus on domestic affairs, a policy that was accelerated by US presidents after him, has neglected foreign policy and state departments across the globe. War on Peace is loaded with information and may take a while to absorb, but it’s a critical read to help understand the current state of international affairs. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

An American Story *****
Christopher Priest, Gollancz, R350

Remember being glued to the television on 9/11 as the twin towers crashed down? Most of us probably accept the official line on what happened and why. I’m an old cynic, and inclined to dismiss conspiracy theories, so a book that bases its premise on them has to be pretty good to beguile me. And An American Story is very good indeed. Set in the near future, where science journalist Ben Matson lives with his wife and kids in an independent Scotland, the story moves backwards and forwards between that time and shortly before 9/11 when Ben had an American girlfriend who died in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. But did American Airways flight 77 really end up there, and did she really die on it? Christopher Priest builds a sense of deep unease – much more effective than edge-of-the-seat terror – as Ben struggles to make sense of what happened, in this intelligent and thought-provoking novel. Margaret von Klemperer

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The 2018 South African Literary Awards winners announced

Via SALA

 
The 2018 winners of the prestigious South African Literary Awards were announced at a gleaming awards ceremony on the 6th November at UNISA.

Twenty-three South African authors were shortlisted for 2018 South African Literary Awards (SALA). The winners, which include authors, poets, writers and literary practitioners whose works are continuously contributing to the enrichment of South Africa’s literary landscape, were celebrated in an auspicious ceremony.

The SALA Awards have honoured over a hundred individuals in the past 13 years. 2018 marked the highest milestone of the awards, as the shortlist included, for the first time, two additional categories: Novel Award and Children’s Literature Award.

Following the passing on of the second National Poet Laureate, Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, the prestigious South African Literary Awards announced liberation struggle poet and novelist Mongane Wally Serote as the successor.

Kelwyn Sole received the Poetry Award for his anthology Walking, Falling, whilst South African journalist, writer and publisher Sam Mathe got the Literary Journalism Award.

The Lifetime Achievement Literary Award was jointly awarded to author of historical and political Hermann Giliomee and award winning author Ronnie Kasrils.

The Chairperson Award was given to South Africa’s most distinguished award-winning photo journalist, Peter Magubane.

The Novel Award was awarded to Dan Sleigh for his book 1795, with Malebo Sephodi receiving the First-Time Published Author Award for her memoir, Miss Behave.

Nick Mulgrew and Nicole Jaekel Strauss were announced as joint winners for the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award for The First Law of Sadness and As in die mond, respectively.

Jürgen Schadenberg was the recipient of the Creative Non-Fiction Award for his monograph, The Way I See It.

The Conference also took place at UNISA over two days, i.e. 6th and 7th November 2018 under the theme “Unifying Africa: Writing and Reading in African languages”, with keynote speaker Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, the renowned, highly respected scholar, prolific author and public speaker who is also the founder of the Center for Advanced Studies of African Societies in South Africa.

“Indeed, as it’s main aim, SALA continues to strive to become the most prestigious and respected literary accolades in South African literature,” said Morakabe Seakhoa, Project Director of the South African Literary Awards.

Founded by the wRite associates, in partnership with the national Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) in 2005, the main aim of the South African Literary Awards is to pay tribute to South African writers who have distinguished themselves as groundbreaking producers and creators of literature, while it celebrates literary excellence in the depiction and sharing of South Africa’s histories, value systems and philosophies and art as inscribed and preserved in all the languages of South Africa, particularly the official languages.

“We congratulate the 2018 winners for their sterling work and keeping South Africa’s literary heritage alive,” says Morakabe Seakhoa.

Book details

1795 by Dan Sleigh
Book homepage
EAN: 9780624073307
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Miss Behave

Miss Behave by Malebo Sephodi
EAN: 9781928337416
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The First Law of Sadness

The First Law of Sadness by Nick Mulgrew
EAN: 9781485625780
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As in die Mond

As in die Mond by Nicole Jaekel Strauss
EAN: 9780795801358
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The Way I See It

The Way I See It: A Memoir by Jürgen Schadenberg
EAN: 9781770105294
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Michelle Obama, DJ Sbu and Jamie Oliver headline the 2018 Exclusive Books Festive Catalogue

Via Exclusive Books

Exclusive Books has made gifting easy for South Africans this year, with more than 100 titles to pick from in its annual festive catalogue – including Becoming, Michelle Obama’s personal account of her upbringing, her life in the White House and what it’s like to raise two daughters under the media’s glare.

The catalogue is available free from Exclusive Books stores from 1 November.

“There’s a book for every age and taste,” said Ben Williams, GM: Marketing at Exclusive Books, “and plenty of local flavour mixed in with the international blockbusters.”

Alongside Becoming, other such blockbusters will include Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century and Out of the Maze: A Story About the Power of Belief, the final book by Dr. Spencer Johnson, of Who Moved My Cheese? fame.

DJ Sbu’s The Art of Hustling: Sell or Surrender headlines the business category with Johnson. “It’s the book that will launch a thousand SA entrepreneurs,” said Williams.

For cookery enthusiasts, Jamie Oliver’s Jamie Cooks Italy will transport home chefs to the Bel Paese, while Simply Zola by Zola Nene serves up a South African taste sensation.

John Grisham’s Reckoning stands tall in the fiction section, along with George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood and Deon Meyer’s Prooi. “Take them all to the beach!” said Williams.

For younger readers, the Harry Potter Pop-Up Guide to Hogwarts is set to provide hours of fun, and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid box set – all twelve books in one place, at a special price – is a sure-fire future heirloom for every reading family.

On the sports scene, Shane Warne’s autobiography, No Spin, has already set tongues wagging – with sledging to follow, no doubt.

“We’re promoting several books at very special prices,” said Williams, “including Jeffrey Archer’s Heads You Win, an epic tale of fame and fortune that begins in Leningrad, Russia, and will be sure to please his legions of fans. We understand that customers are under ever more pressure and have worked hard to ensure they can find something for every family member at the right price.”

Fanatics members will earn double points on all the books featured in the catalogue.

Spread the magic – give a book this season, with Exclusive Books.


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“This is Winkler’s fourth novel, and he just gets better and better,” writes Paige Nick of Mark Winkler’s Theo & Flora

Published in the Sunday Times

Theo & Flora
****
Mark Winkler, Umuzi, R250

Theo

Some of the letters written by Theo and Flora. Picture: Mark Winkler

 
The story behind this novel is almost as nuanced as the one in it.

After Mark Winkler’s first novel An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Absolutely Everything was published, his father-in-law, Norman, gave him a box of letters and said: “Perhaps you might do something with these.”

There were 89 letters in total, written from 1944 to 1948, between Norman’s father, Theo, and his mistress, Flora. Norman passed away a few months later, and it took the author three years to pick them up, dust them off and piece them back together into the story of Wasserman, Theo, Flora and a dog named Troilus.

Wasserman is a writer, or rather has been a writer. His investment-banker wife, Sasha (who has money), walks out, leaving Wasserman (who doesn’t) with the dog, the house and a comfortable stipend, on condition he never sees her again.

Wasserman, being Wasserman, takes the deal and settles into a malaise and into Sasha’s desk chair, which was always more comfortable than his. He soon discovers a box of letters in Sasha’s office, dating back to 1944, between a lawyer named Theo and his mistress, Flora.

Theo no longer loves his wife, Sarah, and is feeling the pressure to make an honest woman out of his mistress. But the laws of the time stipulate that a divorce requires both partners’ agreement and the one thing Sarah will never do is agree to a divorce.

As Wasserman tries to piece together all the broken hearts, his own included, his life takes on new shape, and so does a manuscript.

The relationships in the alternating plotlines mirror, glance and reflect off each other and Winkler’s unique turn of phrase leads to a swift turn of page.

This is Winkler’s fourth novel, and he just gets better and better.

The letters in the book are reprinted verbatim.

Winkler says: “In their original form the letters reflect the different personalities of the two lovers so directly (right down to their handwriting), which gave me a great base to build on their characters. I felt from the outset that to edit or rewrite them would negate their authenticity. Leaving them the way they were originally written allows the reader to access (the real) Theo and Flora no less directly than I could.”

But Theo was no writer, as Winkler acknowledges: “His pen seems to have lacked a comma function, and his sentences often run into each other.” It’s a big decision to bring lesser writing into your own, but fortunately Winkler’s trademark easy literary style slips the reader effortlessly through times and lives and does a lot to mask the clunkiness of Theo’s pen.

You don’t really want to like Winkler, because he’s just so good at what he does, or Wasserman, because he’s so lazy and morally questionable, but how can you not ultimately adore both of them? @paigen

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Book Bites: 4 November

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wife’s Tale ****
Aida Edemariam, HarperCollins, R285

Aida Edemariam retells the story of her grandmother’s life in Ethiopia in a gentle portrait that starts off in a feudal monarchy and ends in a Marxist dictatorship. We learn that her gran, Yetemegnu, was married before she was 10 years old. Surrounded by priests and soldiers, Yetemegnu’s life was filled with challenges that many could not even begin to fathom. Her fight for justice after her husband’s arrest and her inherent ability to help people in desperate need gives Yetemegnu a voice that is stronger than the change her country faces. Edemariam does a magnificent job of translating her grandmother’s strength and legacy. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Circus ****
Irma Venter Human & Rousseau, R280

Adriana van der Hoon is a teenager growing up in ’80s Johannesburg. Unbeknown to her, her father, the Dutchman, has been bringing donor money into the country for the ANC. He’s shot dead in a fake robbery and she’s forced by a security police handler to take over her father’s “job” at the Education Trust, and track down where the money was coming from. The headstrong 18-year-old goes to Berlin on her first covert mission, where she works at a club as a knife-thrower. She starts a relationship with the club owner who supplies the money she is to take back to SA. But Adriana soon finds out he is a pimp, a money launderer and a murderer. Clean and simply written, this is a refreshing and thrilling read. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix ****
Christy Chilimigras, MF Books Joburg, R225

In this fast-paced, debut memoir about growing up in Joburg’s northern suburbs as the child of two addicts, Christy Chilimigras has crafted a book that explores the impact on her life of a flawed family. If you think that sounds depressing, it’s not, particularly as the writer and her sister emerge from the chaos of their childhood as powerful young women who take a stand. The book is full of humour and vivid descriptions, and would appeal to both older teens, young adults and older folk. I look forward to her second book. Samantha Enslin

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“We felt the need for a new challenge” – Michael Stanley on why their latest thriller features a new protagonist

Published in the Sunday Times

Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley, recently wrote their first novel to not feature Detective Kubu.

 
Dead of Night is a departure from our previous books, which are police procedurals with protagonist Detective Kubu of the Botswana CID. The new book is a thriller set mainly in SA, and features a new protagonist – Crystal Nguyen, an American investigative reporter of Vietnamese descent.

So why the change? Had we run out of ideas for Kubu?

Certainly not. We’ve plenty of ideas for more Kubu books, but we felt the need for a new challenge. The structure of a thriller is very different from a police procedural, and just to make it a bit harder, we decided to write it in first person with Crys telling the story herself.

The backstory of Dead of Night is the poaching and horn smuggling that’s devastating the rhino population of SA.

We both spend a lot of time in the bush and feel strongly about the issue. However, we wanted to step back and look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective – so we decided against a South African protagonist and opted for Crystal.

We write together by brainstorming the story, each drafting different chapters or sections of chapters, and then exchanging them multiple times for comments and corrections.

Interspersed are long discussions on WhatsApp or Skype. So every chapter has serious input from both of us.

Readers tell us the writing is seamless. To us collaboration is a natural process and we think writing by yourself must be lonely.

However, with the thriller, we found the chapters going back and forth, but not converging.

And we had trouble getting to grips with Crys. Who is she and what are her motivations? We put the project aside, and wrote another Kubu book. Still, we were convinced Crys had a gripping story to tell.

Two things brought us back to Dead of Night.

Stanley wrote a novella about Crys, and suddenly she came into focus for us. Then, soon after, our publisher asked, ‘Where’s that thriller you were writing? I want to publish it next year.’

We got to work, and this time we knew what we were doing. The book started to flow.

But there was still something wrong with the result.

It needed work, more depth, rewriting. Then, after the second rewrite, we decided first person wasn’t working for us.

Although we have quite similar writing styles, it’s hard for two people to live inside a single person’s head for a whole book. ‘The nuclear option!’ our editor told us. ‘Rewrite it in third person.’

While we were doing so we finally understood what was motivating Crys. Once we did, the book was transformed. Suddenly we were happy with it, and editors were smiling.

Maybe there will be more Crys books. But in the meanwhile we’ve got another challenge – writing a prequel on how Kubu started his career at the CID.

Dead of Night by Michael Stanley is published by Orenda Books, R220

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Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.

 

The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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