Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

Written in the StarsInformation

Goodreads: Written in the Stars
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: March 24, 2015


Naila’s parents have always made her understand that though she may choose her outfits and even her college major–assuming they allow her to go to college–they will choose her husband.  Until then, Naila not only cannot date a boy, she cannot even talk to one.  But then she falls in love with Saif and her parents, ostensibly to protect her, take her on a trip to Pakistan, where they force her into marriage.  Alone and desperate, Naila wonders if her fate is truly written in the stars or if she can escape the path others have chosen and forge her own.


Written in the Stars is a powerful and a heartbreaking book, one that looks unflinchingly at the nightmares faced by girls forced into marriages against their wills.  While the story is never graphic, it is honest, and it spares neither its characters nor its readers from unthinkable violence, coercion, and cruelty; the horrors are made all the more disturbing because Aisha Saeed reminds us that, for some, Naila’s story is not fiction, but their reality.   Written in the Stars is an important book it many ways–it features diverse characters (the protagonist is the daughter of Pakastani immigrants) and shines a spotlight on the violence perpetrated against unwilling brides.  It resonates so strongly, however, because its message never seems forced or didactic.  Saeed lets her characters tell the story, inviting readers into their lives, so that we can feel Naila’s pain and desperation, all her fear and betrayal, and make it our own.  When we try to imagine walking in Naila’s shoes, that is when to continue reading seems impossible–and when Written in the Stars has its opportunity to leave an indelible mark on our hearts.

Writing a story about a girl forced into marriage in Pakistan could be considered risky.  How do you tell a such story without appearing to demonize a culture or a country?  Saeed handles her material deftly.  All her characters are fully-realized–even Naila’s parents, who could have easily been turned into stereotypes, possess many facets, from overprotective to loving to forceful.  And the characters introduced by Naila’s arranged marriage prove just as three-dimensional–her husband, for instance, seems to understand Naila’s position but also feels trapped by the pressures imposed on him by their community.  By showing us that these characters are people, all of them dealing with the clash of cultural and society expectations against their personal desires in their own unique ways, Saeed ensures that her story is about individuals and their choices, rather than a blanket critique of any one group of people.

While I found the focus on societal expectations relevant, however, the most powerful part of Written in the Stars for me was Naila’s struggle with how much control she has over her own fate.  She is a victim of abuse and violence  and she has absolutely no one to whom she can turn.  Even those who sympathize with her urge her to give up, to accept that life is a struggle and a nightmare and that she has no way out–the best she can hope for is acceptance.  Without a phone, money, or transportation, she is literally trapped.  And she knows that if she ever tries to escape, she will probably die.  If Naila were to give up, I thought, I would not blame her.  She would only be choosing to protect the little she has left.  And I wondered what I would do if I were in her place.

Written in the Stars never pretends that there are any easy answers, not to how one should choose to respond to outside pressures or to whether or not anyone should risk everything for their freedom.  It simply acknowledges the tragedies that so many experience and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.  That kind of hard look at reality presented to a teen audience is rare and beautiful.  And it makes this book one of the must-read releases of 2015.

If You Like Maps, Then Read…

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins lives a comfortable life in the Shire, one full of predictability and devoid of any adventure.  Then one day the wizard Gandalf appears on his doorstep and suddenly Bilbo’s life is turned upside down.  Enlisted as a burglar to steal back the treasure of a band of Dwarves, Bilbo sets out on a journey across Middle-earth–a journey that will end in dragon fire.

The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove

In 1799, an event known as the Great Disruption threw time off across the world, plunging some countries back into the Dark Ages and throwing others far into the future.  Fractured by the different ages, the world began a new age of exploration and mapmakers gained new prestige.  Sophia’s parents were explorers but never returned from an expedition, so she lives now with her uncle, the famed cartologer Shadrack.  When Shadrack is kidnapped, however, it is up to Sophia and her new ally Theo to travel the world and bring him home.  The first in the Mapmakers Trilogy.

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

A legendary map exists that can take the bearer wherever he or she wishes to go.  Marrill hopes it can take her back home to Arizona.  Master Thief Fin longs to use it to find his mother.  But though the two ally themselves with a powerful wizard and the world’s best captain in a quest to join all the pieces of the map together, another seeks the map as well–the Oracle, a wizard gone mad who seeks to bring about the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, a prophecy that foretells the end of the world.  The first book in the Pirate Stream series.

Here, There Be Dragons by James A. Owen

The mysterious death of a professor draws together three strangers from Oxford, John, Jack, and Charles.  Informed by a friend of the professor’s that they are now the Caretakers of an atlas of imaginary lands called the Imaginarium Geographic, the three set sail for the Archipelago of Dreams, where all the places of myth and literature exist.  There the Winter King covers the lands with shadow and enslaves the people.  But before the Caretakers can defeat the darkness, they will first have to battle the monsters within themselves.  The first in the Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica.

Translating Tolkien: Language and Literature

When J.R.R. Tolkien was creating Middle Earth, he decided to build his world upon language. He used his knowledge as a philologist and his familiarity with over twenty languages to create unique languages for his races, and then to craft each people’s stories around those languages. While readers are familiar with the resulting Elvish dialects and the Dwarvish runic alphabet, Tolkien’s attention to his own language, the language of his novels, is perhaps less recognized. Yet the way Tolkien’s stories are written are just as important as the characters and actions they are written about. Tolkien’s work draws on Old and Middle English vocabulary and sentence structure to very deliberately create a sense of the old.

By combining older English words with modern ones, and sometimes by creating his own pseudo-archaic word forms, Tolkien gives reader a sense both that the stories of Middle Earth (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion) happened in the past and that they happened in an English past. Tolkien’s novels are very closely tied to his country, and his readers can close their eyes and imagine that maybe these stories really happened, sometime long ago. The language encourages a connection between the readers and the stories, and help them imagine the stories are real.

Although the task seems challenging, Tolkien’s work has, of course, already been translated into numerous languages, and while I have not yet had the privilege to read any of those editions, I do know what I would be looking for in a translation: fidelity not just to the meaning of Tolkien’s words, but also to their feel—their sense of being steeped in history. A great translation of The Lord of the Rings would feature archaic vocabulary and syntax, while still maintaining enough of a connection to the modern form of the language that the book did not feel too foreign or difficult. It would be capture all the subtle shifts in tone between each race of people, from the whimsy of the Hobbits to the seriousness of the Dwarves and the formality of the Elves. It would use language to bring Tolkien’s world to life.

Good stories impact people—move them, inspire them, and challenge them. Good translations help make those stories available to a larger audience, so more of us can be inspired.  Translation services like Smartling can help do that.

“Leaf by Niggle” by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Tolkien ReaderInformation

Goodreads: The Tolkien Reader
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1945


Niggle longs to complete his final painting before going on a journey he knows he must take, but his neighbor Parish constantly interrupts his work with requests for help.  As Niggle fears, he at length has to depart with his work still unfinished and with nothing to help him on his way except the record of his past conduct.


Briana has touched before on the allegorical underpinnings of Leaf by Niggle, most notably the connection to J. R. R. Tolkien’s own creative process and the obvious parallels between Niggle’s journey and the Christian afterlife.  Though it is, indeed, impossible to read Niggle without reflecting upon both these aspects, the story is so much more than the sum of its elements.  Niggle invites readers, whether artists or not, to participate in the story and go along with its characters to the afterlife, much as The Divine Comedy works by asking readers to identify with Dante-Pilgrim and take a part in his salvific journey.  The result is a powerful reflection, not merely on the role of art in society or the need to do good works or on what we might expect after death, but on how all of these aspects touch us in our own lives.  Reading Leaf by Niggle is an intensely personal experience, one of those kind felt too deeply for words to do it justice.

Not everyone, of course, may relate at first to Niggle.  He is an artist and one apparently modeled on Tolkien himself, with his reputation for getting lost in details and taking too much time to complete any given work.  However, even those who don’t feel creative or think they lack artistic talent can identify with other aspects of Niggle’s personality–his feeling of under-appreciation, his desire to spend more time on the things that matter to him rather than on the things he ought to be doing, his annoyance over the inopportunities created by his friends and neighbors.  Niggle has things that are important to him, but that are not important to anyone else, and he feels alone and he dreads lost dreams. Such experiences are not limited to the artistic.

The resolution of Niggle’s story will prove especially powerful for anyone who, like him, had a dream left unfulfilled.  It promises everything–help and appreciation and beauty and fulfillment.  It is an especially moving moment because it illustrates so perfectly how the vision of others can complement our own and how our own work can become part of something greater than we ever imagined.  Leaf by Niggle is, above all, a story of hope–a story that it says we, too, can share.

“On Fairy -Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien

On Fairy-StoriesInformation

Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1947


Originally written for presentation at the 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture and later published in 1947, this essay describes J. R. R. Tolkien’s views on what makes a fairy tale distinct from other literary forms and explains his artistic philosophy, arguing that fairy tales are unique in their ability to offer readers the consolation and joy of the happy ending–an effect he calls “eucatastophe”.


“On Fairy-Stories” will prove a treasure mine for any serious fan of Tolkien as it illuminates his views on the genre of the fairy story and details his understanding not only of what makes a fairy tale work (that is, what makes it believable and a work of Art) but also of what makes fairy stories valuable.  However, his words, coming as they do from one of the fantasy genre’s most influential writers, will also hold weight for anyone interested in fairy stories either as a reader or as a writer.  Though written over 70 years ago, they remain timely and pertinent as fantasy and fairy stories continue to struggle to be recognized as legitimate literary forms in certain circles, being labelled derisively as “escapist” or “not real.”  But as Tolkien reminds us, it is fantasy above all that calls attention to our true reality, giving us a glimpse of things beyond our seeing and fulfilling our heart’s desire for joy.

The beginning of the essay may strike some as a little dull, necessarily having to lay the groundwork for the essay as a whole and thus dealing in such matters such as Tolkien’s fitness to speak on the topic (not having studied fairy stories), the definition of a fairy story, etc.  These concerns may seem silly to some–after all, if Tolkien the great writer of fantasy cannot speak on what makes a good fairy story, who can?  And again, do we really need to differentiate among the dream story, the folk tale, the beast fable, and the fairy story?  Indeed we do, for, as Tolkien points out, these genres often get thrown together indiscriminately in anthologies as if they were all the same.  But if we do not exclude genres like the beast fable, then Tolkien’s vision of what makes fairy stories unique falls apart.

His vision is rooted in his Catholic Christian faith, arguing that fairy stories provide a certain kind of “joy” that gives readers a glimpse of “the underlying reality or truth”.  He points to the Birth of Christ and the Resurrection as real-life examples of the sudden turn in a story such as we sometimes glimpse in Faerie, the turn that turns sorrow into gladness against all the odds.  This joy, he says, is special because it does not diminish the sorrow or explain it away or promise that sorrow will all cease.  It is, essentially, a miracle, a moment of grace.  A happy ending that did not have to be, but was.

However, even those who do not follow the Christian faith will, I think, find much of value in Tolkien’s words.  His joy can be recognized by all readers, even if they do not admit the same source.  And his defense of fantasy will resound, I suspect, with all lovers of that genre.  For he takes the main criticisms levelled at Faerie and claims them as positives, arguing that “escape” is not an evil but a sanity and that it is ludicrous to suggest that factories and bombs are more “real” than horses and castles.  Tolkien powerfully asserts that when one sees the evil in this world, it is no wonder that he or she might wish to escape–and that “the Escape of the Prisoner” is not to be confused with “the Flight of the Deserter.”  Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that critics of fantasy might actually be fearful that readers of fairy stories might get dangerous ideas from their tales–the idea that things could be different and that they can enact change.

Tolkien’s defense of fairy stories is by turns rousing, inspiring, reflective, and moving.  Reading his words is like meeting a kindred spirit, for he touches upon the reasons I love fairy stories and manages to express them in just the way I wish I would be able to express them myself.  Even in his nonfiction, Tolkien somehow weaves an enchantment.

Top Ten Tuesday (100): Books from My Childhood I’d Love to Revisit

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s topic is

Top Ten Books from My Childhood I’d Love to Revisit.

Of course, I revisit many of these from time to time–they are some of my favorite stories!–but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to revisit them even more.

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: I know some readers find it preachy, but I was willing to overlook that as a child and, my interest in the sisters is so strong, that I can overlook it even now.

2. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: I reread this probably three months ago and I already miss Anne.

3. Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery: I haven’t reread Emily for awhile, I’m afraid to say.

4. Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott: I was always fond of this one because it’s overlooked in Alcott’s oeuvre, but apparently that disinterest led to my library’s decision to get rid of it.

5. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: I remember really liking this book, though I don’t recall any plot details.

6. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: My favorite Narnia book.

7. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle: The ending always makes me cry, though.

8. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy: I’ve been trying to go through the sequels, but it’s been some time since I’ve read the original adventure.

9. The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter: Classic romance featuring a very fictionalized account of the life of William Wallace.

10. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch: My favorite feminist fairy tale.

Angelfall by Susan Ee


Goodreads: Angelfall
Series: Penryn and the End of Days #1
Source: Netgalley
Published: May 21, 2011

Official Summary

It’s been six weeks since the angels of the apocalypse destroyed the world as we know it. Only pockets of humanity remain.

Savage street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night.

When angels fly away with a helpless girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back…


Angelfall captivatingly blends angelic myth and apocalyptic scenarios to result in a book that is nearly impossible to put down. A strong heroine, noble hero, and unrelentingly urgent plot guide readers through a world ridden with chaos and a few bright spots of hope. Most other angel books cannot compare.

Admittedly, Angelfall begins a bit slowly. The prose is clunky, repetitive and sometimes too self-aware. The post-apocalyptic elements, the decrepit town where gangs rule the street and no one can go out at night, seem unremarkable and familiar. Then the angels come, and everything changes. Penryn doesn’t just have to face street gangs with guns; she has to befriend one of the enemy and go on an epic quest to save her little sister. Whether the prose also improves at this point or its awkwardness is just less noticeable as the plot of the novels picks up, I can’t say for certain, but suddenly the story seems fresh. Even as other tropes of the genre pop up—the rebel alliance, the streams of people seeking haven in large cities—Ee manages to put a supernatural spin on them and make them new again.

Penryn is a particularly well-drawn character for this genre. She isn’t just harsh and she isn’t just disillusioned. The end of the world scenario has certainly toughened her, but she has always been tough and bears the trait well. And beneath that, she has a genuinely good heart, which seems like just the right thing if you’re going to have to deal with angels. Raffe is a great companion for her. The two work well together, a true team, and there’s just enough romantic tension in the novel to make readers swoony and leave them hoping for more in the sequels.

The cast of side characters is equally nuanced, including the kidnapped younger sister, Penryn’s mentally unstable mother, and a whole rebel army. I admit, however, I can do without the twins-who-are-perfectly-interchangeable trope. Seriously, they call themselves Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, which is absurd enough, but eventually they just get called Dee-Dum because, you see, when you’re dealing with twins it doesn’t actually matter which one you’re talking to; they’re just the same person anyway. This is pretty insulting to twins and I do wish it would stop being portrayed in media as cute or the norm.

Parts of the backstory could also use more explanation, but the plot is so engrossing this is practically unnoticeable until the story is over. Then the questions—Wait, how exactly did angels take over the world? And when?—start coming to light. I’m hoping more of this will be answered in the sequels because, as in-depth as Ee describes the present-day world, it all seems a bit hazy when you can’t tell yourself a complete narrative about how it came to be that way.

In the end, however, Angelfall stands out as an imaginative and captivating take on both post-apocalyptic stories and on the angel/supernatural romance. I’ve seen a lot of hype for this book, and it really deserves it.

Movie Review: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


Directors:  Isao Takahata
Writer: Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi
Release: 2013


A bamboo cutter witnesses a tiny girl appear in a bamboo shoot and, believing she shows the favor of heaven, takes her home to raise as his own.  Her exquisite beauty captures the hearts of all who look at her, but she harbors a secret and must one day face her past.  A retelling of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.


Studio Ghibli has a reputation for creating films of breathtaking beauty and wonder and The Tale of Princess Kaguya continues in that tradition.  From the opening scene where a miniature girl appears within a glowing bamboo stalk to the final moments when the truth about her past is revealed, the film radiates with all the joy, the mystery, the poignancy of life.  It is one of those stories that touches your heart, the kind that stays with you.

Though the story possesses an intriguing plot–who is this girl?  from where does she come?  whom will she marry?–the most memorable moments, to me, are the small ones, the simple depictions of everyday life in Kaguya’s village, the joyous days she spends with her friends.  These scenes, while doing little to forward the plot, are key; they illustrate exactly what life is to Kaguya and what, to her, constitutes happiness.  Of course, life is not fair and Kaguya is still too young to know that, so over her idyllic days suspends a sense of foreboding of which only viewers are aware.  These darkness makes those moments even more precious.

The plot itself is absolutely lovely, if you enjoy fairy tales in the traditional vein.  It may not be convoluted, but it possesses its own complexities in its honest look at human nature–greed, falseness, ambition, lust, and more all are represented.  More rarely are kindness and understanding shown.  This makes the second half of the film sometimes unbearably sad, but it also imparts to the film a unique honesty.  Even fairy tales, it says, do not always turn out happily ever after.

The most striking aspect of the film, however, may not be the story but the artwork.  Exquisitely hand-drawn with watercolor and ink, it sometimes delicately depicts the beauty of the natural world or the intricacy of material wealth, but, at other times, seems to break down into impressionism.  This gives the film raw power, allowing the narrative at key moments to play out silently, all emotion expressed through line and form.  This is the first “breathtaking” piece of art that literally made me catch my breath.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a wonderful, beautiful, heartbreaking story.  It has already made my list of the most powerful films I have ever seen.

Top Books I Discovered from Required School Reading

This Wednesday, Krysta wrote about the pros and cons of required reading in schools. She noted that we all have horror stories of immensely dull novels we had to read for class, but also asked: what about the required reading we loved? To continue the conversation, here is a list of some great books I first encountered as class assignments.

The Winners

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

One of the local high school teachers was furious when she discovered our eighth grade teacher had assigned this to our class. She huffed and puffed about how it was too complex and too long, how it would take her half a year to even begin to get her students to understand it. Personally, I think she blew things way out of proportion. I read this book, unabridged, with zeal. And though I probably didn’t get everything there is to get out of the book, I did go on to reread it a few more times, which certainly helped.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I read this one in high school and instantly fell in love with the characters and the beautiful writing. It’s still one of my favorite books, and I’ve been able to re-read it a few times and still love it just as much; no re-reading disappointment here! Hopefully Go Set a Watchman will live up to it.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

My third grade teacher read this aloud to us in class, and I couldn’t get enough. I spent the next several weeks checking out the rest of the series from the school library. And then checking them out all over again. I’m so pleased I was able to encounter these books as a child because, as much as I still like them, I just don’t have the same experience reading them as an adult.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

This one was also assigned by my eighth grade teacher. He was very explicit about assigning books he thought were interesting, instead of assigning ones that fit some recommended grade level. I’m still surprised he got away with this one, due to all the cursing, but I’m so glad he did. I’ve gone on to read several other Steinbeck novels and like most of them, as well.

Honorable Mention

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

My high school English teacher was no longer to officially assign this book because of the cursing…so he gave away the old classroom copies of the novel to anyone who would take one. I think more students probably read this book than if it had actually been required; the lure of banned books is irresistible. And while I don’t think I was ever really an angsty teen, Holden’s disgust with anyone and anything he found “phoney” really resonated with me.

What great books did you discover from required reading?

Story Thieves by James Riley

Story ThievesInformation

Goodreads: Story Thieves
Series: Story Thieves #1
Source: Library
Published: Jan. 2015


Owen finds life incredibly boring and escapes every chance he can get into one of his favorite books.  Learning that his classmate Bethany can actually jump into stories and experience them, then, is just about the greatest revelation ever.  Bethany warns him they cannot interfere with any plots, but Owen longs to change the course of his favorite series and become a literary hero. But Owen’s actions have unintended consequences and soon he finds himself starring in what could be his first and only adventure.


Story Thieves seems to promise a winning middle-grade fantasy from the start.  After all, its premise, that of characters jumping through various books, allows this book to have it all–magicians, dragons, cyborgs, lasers, zombies, and more.  It’s a bunch of genres flamboyantly gallivanting across the page and rejoicing in their own sometimes silly combinations.  However, though the plot is fast and James Riley keeps the surprises coming, I found in the end that Story Thieves lacks a little bit of heart.

I admit I formed a slight personal bias against the book from the start, as I found both the protagonists annoying.  Owen is Norton Juster’s Milo–but far worse.  He does nothing but spend all day contemplating how boring life is.  Apparently no joy mars his days, no friendships or family make it worthwhile, no hobbies can distract him from his boredom.  He simply can’t be bothered to try to take an interest in anything.  Plus he reveals later that he’s willing to deceive others to get his own way and he has an unhealthy obsession with getting others to hero worship him.

Bethany, meanwhile, is angry.  Just angry.  She seems to harbor guilt from an accident she caused at the tender age of four and that leads her to lash out at anyone who crosses her path.  Or tries to talk to her.  Or offers her friendship.  She would really just like to be alone and angry.  Of course she and Owen both grow as individuals during the course of the story, but neither of them is a joy to be around for the first fourth of the book or so.  In fact, they seem to spend most of it yelling, which is hilarious as they think they’re being secretive.

I could overlook the characters since, by the end, Bethany loosens up and Owen learns that being a hero requires one to do more than wave a wand around and look cool.  However, the ending disappointed me.  The story talks about sacrifice and having a selfless heart, but the ultimate message is muddled in various ways. [Spoiler Warning] Owen, for instance, shows reluctance about sacrificing himself and thus receives an “out” from a friend–a friend who would have let him sacrifice himself as long as he seemed happy about it.  What are readers to make of this?  Sacrifices should only be made by people who want to do them?  Are they, then, sacrifices? [End Warning]

Bethany, meanwhile, seems not to understand the significance of sacrifice–she wants to rewrite stories so that the characters do not have to suffer.  But isn’t that the point of the story?  That readers can look up to someone willing to suffer, maybe even give up life itself, so that others might live?  By arguing that the sacrifice is not fair and would make her sad, Bethany is saying she wants to rewrite the story so it possesses less power and loses its guiding principles.  No one wants to see their favorite characters suffer, but there are things that are bigger than one’s self.  That idea gets lost in Bethany’s insistence that pain be avoided (not that one should allow one’s friends to suffer if it can be avoided, of course!)

Whether or not pain should be avoided in stories, however, proves a tricky issue since, in this case, the characters seem to be real.  That is, once they escape the book they are in, they have the ability to make choices not determined by the author who wrote them.  Bethany and her friends never really resolve the issue of how much agency book characters have or should have, Bethany in the end just saying that the tribulations the characters suffer are not unknown and that readers are rooting for characters when they read their stories.  It’s a nice sentiment, but it sidesteps the ethical questions raised about authors having characters experience pain and seems to contradict Bethany’s own desire not to see any character suffer too much (a limitation apparently decided by her own personal feelings toward various characters).

The plot of Story Thieves held me largely spellbound–it’s fast, crammed with action, and manages a plot twist or two.  However, I would have enjoyed it more had I found the characters less annoying and I would have found it more powerful and more moving if it had reflected that, even in fantasy worlds, good sometimes comes with a price.


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