Chika Gujarathi

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Set in Rome in the summer of 1969, Emily Dunlay’s debut novel is a thrilling whirl of suspense, romance and glamour. Born and raised in Dallas in a wealthy, conservative and politically powerful dynasty of Huntleys (imagine Texas’ Kennedys), 35-year-old Teddy has never quite been able to escape her family’s influence. But after a setup turns into a marriage proposal from David Shepard, an American diplomat in Italy, Teddy is ready for her transformation from an old maid into a trophy wife: to step into a glamorous world of fashion and embassy parties, and more importantly, to finally find independence from her family’s name and legacy.

Alas, it’s the ‘60s and even in Italy, it’s still a man’s world. Lonely and desperate, Teddy soon finds herself slipping into some unsavory pursuits. Narrated in the first person, Teddy unravels in a series of flashbacks as our protagonist tries to set the record straight to Italian detectives in the aftermath of an embassy party gone wrong. In her smeared makeup, with a bloody dress stashed under her bed, and clutching one more of too many whiskeys on ice, Teddy is keeping her cool, and trying very hard not to give anything away. 

Dunlay does an exceptional job of keeping the reader guessing about Teddy’s true intentions. Is she to be pitied for her circumstances, or blamed for her inability to stand up for herself? Add to this enigma some fantastic side characters like David, Uncle Hal, Aunt Sister and the Wolf—all equally complex and full of layers. Dunlay also uses the Cold War political tensions of the ‘60s to their full potential for plot twists. 

While this well-executed and cleverly plotted story is a win in itself, there are also overarching explorations of patriarchy, privilege and freedom that will resonate long after the end. Teddy is an instantly arresting and electrifying read that’s not to be missed.

This cleverly plotted story unravels in a series of flashbacks as our protagonist, Teddy, tries to set the record straight to Italian detectives in the aftermath of an embassy party gone wrong.
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There is nothing predictable about Holly Wilson’s debut novel, Kittentits.

Relating the coming-of-age of a 10-year-old girl named Molly Sibly, Kittentits is set in 1992 on the outskirts of Chicago. Molly lives in a dilapidated Quaker co-op called House of Friends, with her once-blind puppeteer father who inexplicably regained his eyesight after a house fire; a community-gardening evangelist named Evelyn, who is also Molly’s home-school teacher; and the ghost of Sister Regina, a nun who perished in the same fire that gave Molly’s father his eyesight back. With a mother who died shortly after her birth and no friends beyond a pen pal named Demarcus who never writes back, Molly’s life is rather lacking for company.

Molly, however, seems blissfully unaware of the misfortune that surrounds her. What she’s focused on is the opening of the World’s Fair and a houseguest named Jeanie who is fresh out of prison and assigned to live in the House of Friends as her halfway house. Molly sets herself the following goal: befriend the thrillingly crass Jeanie, meet Demarcus in person and enjoy the opening day of the World’s Fair with her two new best friends. Then a second goal emerges: open a spiritual portal at the Fair and find the ghost of her mother. I’ll say it again—there’s nothing predictable about this novel. And for this precise reason, Kittentits is nearly impossible to put down.

Narrated by Molly in the first person, the story is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure, told with an exuberance that can only be expected from a 10-year-old. There is a surrealism to everything that happens that is best not to question (the World’s Fair taking place in 1992 being the least of our worries).

While Molly clearly steals the show as the protagonist, Wilson demonstrates exceptional artistry with the supporting characters, capturing the fundamental experiences of trust, friendship, love and loss. Their backstories, however improbable, will resonate with your personal yearnings.

A bit deranged, a lot unforgettable, Kittentits needs to be your next literary escape.

Kittentits, Holly Wilson’s debut novel, is a fast-paced, filthy-mouthed adventure—led by an exuberant 10-year-old narrator.
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Celebrated children’s and young adult author Renée Watson’s first novel for adults is set in Portland, Oregon. skin & bones follows 40-year-old protagonist Lena Baker, who wears many hats as the daughter of a pastor; a priceless friend to Aspen and Kendra; the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the county library system and the loving mother of 8-year-old Aaliyah.

We first meet Lena at a doctor’s appointment. Ignoring the symptoms she came to them about, the medical staff insist on taking her blood sugar and blood pressure. Even after the tests come back normal, they keep returning to her weight instead of the issue she needs help with. As a Black woman with a large body, Lena has been through similar situations countless times before, where peoples’ assumptions about her overshadow everything else.

Lena knows she is brilliant and radiant. However, her power to push through the noise of others’ biases finally falters when heartbreak from a serious romance makes her second-guess her beauty and self-worth. When these negative feelings start affecting her daughter too, Lena gets a wake-up call. But how do you mend a broken heart? And more importantly, how do you mend a broken system in which standards for beauty and success are so narrowly defined?

Narrated in the first person, Lena’s journey unfolds in short chapters that are lyrical and poetic. The intertwining of Portland’s Black history, thanks to Lena’s job as the Director of DEI, adds tremendous depth to the story. Watson’s supporting characters build a strong sense of family and community, collectively showcasing the importance of passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. For anyone intrigued by stories that highlight experiences with race, gender, self-love, family and friendship, skin & bones will resonate in more ways than one.

For anyone intrigued by stories that highlight experiences with race, gender, self-love, family and friendship, skin & bones will resonate in more ways than one.
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Place, purpose and self-worth are front and center in Sheila Sundar’s debut novel, Habitations, about a young girl’s journey into womanhood. We begin in the mid-’90s in South India and follow Sundar’s protagonist, Vega Gopalan, through a childhood marked by the devastating loss of her younger sister, her developing interest in sociology, her sexual longings and experiments, and the overall angst of being young.

When a scholarship takes Vega to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, the comforts and privileges she knew as an upper-caste Brahmin dissolve into the confusing and often lonely experience of being an immigrant student in the U.S. Meek and naive, however, she is not. Vega’s intelligence, humor and curiosity keep her open and engaged with new experiences.

Reflections on race, sex, caste and social norms remain the focus as Vega navigates the labyrinth of her immigrant community, academia, friendships, lovers and, eventually, a marriage not for love, but for a precious green card that will allow her to live in the U.S. and pursue her academic interests. Career developments and the birth of her daughter, Asha, unfold new challenges for Vega. But through these challenges, she becomes a surer, more hopeful woman ready to live life on her own terms.

There are many reasons to love this novel. Vega’s journey will resonate in one way or another with anyone who has suffered loss or struggled with self-doubt. Sundar’s supporting characters and rich depiction of immigrant life round out Vega’s story, no doubt drawing on the author’s own experience growing up in the ’90s as the child of Indian immigrants to the U.S. Best of all, the novel speaks to the human experience of how the burdens we carry eventually come to define our strengths.

Insightful and hopeful, Habitations delivers on all fronts.

Insightful and hopeful, Sheila Sundar’s debut novel Habitations follows a young Indian American woman’s experiences with academia, immigrant community, marriage and motherhood.
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Imagine finding yourself in the company of a stranger. A simple hello organically morphs into hours of conversation, full of resonating and enlightening stories. This is the feeling one gets while reading Amitava Kumar’s latest novel, My Beloved Life. Telling the life story of a man named Jadunath Kunwar, the novel is a moving collection of memories and experiences entangled with world history.

Born in 1935 in the tiny farming village of Khewali, India, without electricity, money or much else, to a mother who nearly died of a snake bite while pregnant, Jadunath (or Jadu) nevertheless seems destined for big things. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge lead him away from peasant life to the city of Patna where he eventually becomes a respected professor, a political activist and a loving husband and father. Jadu’s story provides glimpses of life in rural India steeped in superstition and faith, and of India’s struggles for equality and progress from post-independence to the modern day.

In contrast to Jadu’s upbringing, his daughter, Jugnu, is born in the bustling city of Patna in 1965. Raised in a loving home, surrounded by her father’s intellectual circle, Jugnu grows up to be a passionate journalist for CNN in the United States. Jugnu’s perspective adds deeply to our understanding of Jadu beyond his words alone.

The novel feels very intimate as it unfolds in the first person from Jadu and then Jugnu’s perspectives. In the skillful blending of individual experience with extraordinary world events, Kumar’s journalistic background shines through, often making one forget that this is a work of fiction. Additionally, Kumar’s own upbringing in a small town near Patna, and his experiences as an immigrant and professor in the United States, add a very powerful element to his ultimate message that everyone has a story that is worth remembering.

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and mundane, My Beloved Life is storytelling at its best.

Telling the life story of a man named Jadunath Kunwar, My Beloved Life is a moving collection of memories and experiences entangled with world history.
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For author Leo Vardiashvili, home was Tbilisi, Georgia, until post-Soviet civil unrest forced him and his family to flee to England in the 1990s. Almost two decades would pass before Vardiashvili returned to Tbilisi, finding a pulsing city filled with mere remnants of his childhood memories, places and faces.

Born of this loss and transformation, Vardiashvili’s debut novel Hard by a Great Forest tells the story of Saba Sulidze-Donauri, who has returned to his native city from London under difficult circumstances. Months ago, first his father, Irakli, and then his older brother, Sandro, had been drawn to Tbilisi by the pull of the past, then suddenly dropped out of contact and disappeared. It is now up to Saba to decipher the cryptic clues they left behind and locate his father and brother without arousing suspicion from the Georgian authorities.

Along with the shock of this awful situation, Saba faces the anxiety of returning “home” to find everything unfamiliar and overwhelming. Helping him navigate the streets as well as his emotions is a gregarious taxi driver named Nodar who drives an ancient Volga. Nodar has his own stories of loss camouflaged within this city that has moved on without him. Like young children possessed by an adventurous spirit, Nodar and Saba soldier on, determined to unravel the mystery of the disappearances. Although some brutal moments are hard to bear, Vardiashvili keeps readers invested with the grit and generous spirit of his characters, including Nodar, his resourceful wife Keti, and many long-dead relatives that live on as voices in Saba’s head.

At its simplest, Hard by a Great Forest appeals as a thrilling story of good guys trying to beat the bad ones. It is a great read full of history, mystery and chance reunions that asks the reader to examine how we can move forward when we’re followed by the ghosts of the past.

Hard by a Great Forest is full of history, mystery and chance reunions, following a Georgian refugee who has returned to Tbilisi to find his missing father and brother.
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Set in a dreamy coastal town, Inci Atrek’s debut novel, Holiday Country, is about three generations of women learning to make peace with the choices they have made. Narrated by the youngest of them all, Ada, the story is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is about lost opportunities and how far one may be tempted to go to recover them.

Things are just as you might imagine in the tiny seaside town of Ayvalik off the Aegean coast of Turkey—sleepy, quiet and slow-moving. Here, time is dictated not by the ticking of a clock but rather by the movement of the sun and tide. Oleander bushes line the pathways connecting the villas, the market and the two lone restaurants (aptly named the Big Club and the Small Club), and gossiping is as crucial a part of the lives of Ayvalik’s mostly retired residents as swimming, eating and sleeping. 

 

19-year-old Ada has spent all her summer holidays here since she was 4. Ada and her mother Meltem’s annual pilgrimage to Ayvalik from San Francisco has been a consistent but mostly unsuccessful attempt to please Ada’s opinionated and controlling grandma, Mukadder, who never quite forgave Meltem for marrying an American and moving away. 

This summer, however, there is uncertainty in the air for Ada, who has not only discovered that her father has been cheating on her mother, but is also unsure of how her impending adult life will change her summer getaways to Ayvalik and, by extension, her connection to her Turkish heritage and her sense of who she really is. Amidst this angst, Ada meets a handsome older man named Levent. Soon discovering he has a romantic past with her mother, she goes on a mission to get them back together again, while unintentionally falling for him herself.

With a setting that comes through beautifully in Atrek’s writing, Holiday Country is tender, well-written and filled with just the right amount of twists and turns.

Holiday Country is a tender coming-of-age story about lost opportunities set in the tiny seaside town of Ayvalik off the Aegean coast of Turkey.
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The action comes fast and furious in Rachel Beanland’s second novel, The House Is on Fire, inspired by the real-life fire that occurred in Richmond, Virginia, on December 26, 1811, and has been described by many historians as the first great disaster of our young nation. The calamity burned down the city’s famous theater during a sold-out performance, killing 72 people and becoming international news.

In Beanland’s retelling, the story unfolds in a quick succession of short chapters told from the perspectives of four real people who experienced the events firsthand. Sally Henry Campbell, daughter of Founding Father Patrick Henry, is in an expensive box seat on the third floor with other high-society folks. Cecily Patterson is in a crowded lobby seat with other enslaved and destitute people relieved to be escaping reality for a few hours. Jack Gibson, an orphan and aspiring actor, is backstage as the stagehand in charge of props, including the chandelier that ultimately causes the house to erupt in flames. Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, runs to the theater, putting himself in danger to save the lives of over a dozen white women and men.

Through the author’s extensive research into letters, census data and newspaper archives, as well as her historically accurate creative liberties—both of which Beanland elaborates upon in her author’s note—The House Is on Fire captures the disastrous night hour by hour, reminiscent of watching a true crime drama on TV. Most importantly, Beanland’s choice to explore the tragedy through four very differently privileged people allows the story to go beyond facts and into the moral fabric and social norms of the time. It is disturbing to be reminded of the vice grip of racism, class and sexism while a deadly fire rages on.

Times sure have changed, but the choices made by Sally, Cecily, Jack and Gilbert resonate deeply. “Would I do the same?” is a question that inevitably pops up often for the reader. And so does the realization that proverbial fires continue to burn around the world as we individuals try to save ourselves and others.

Fast-moving, character-driven and action-packed, The House Is on Fire is simply a thrill to read.

Rachel Beanland’s choice to explore the 1811 Richmond fire from the perspectives of four very different people allows the story to go beyond facts and into the moral fabric of the time.
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Paris has a reputation, a certain je ne sais quoi that has enchanted people (and readers) for years. Fueling this fascination further is Celia Bell’s debut novel, The Disenchantment, inspired by the real-life Affair of the Poisons, a period of scandal in French high society from 1677 to 1682. Bell takes us to a time when Paris was sensationalized by fortunetellers, love potions and poisons used by prominent people concerned for their wealth, reputation and romances.

Among them is Marie Catherine, the Baroness of Cardonnoy. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Marie Catherine has realized that while money can’t buy happiness, it can provide frequent opportunities to rendezvous with her lover, Victoire Rose, Mademoiselle de Conti. The danger of their illicit affair being discovered only deepens the romance—that is, until a servant sees them kissing. However, he fails to recognize Victoire and instead reports to the baron that Marie Catherine is having an affair with a gentleman.

Furious, the baron goes to the home of Alain Lavoie, the artist commissioned to make a portrait of the baroness and their two children. Sure that Lavoie is the only man that had been near his wife, the baron assumes the painter’s guilt and orders his men to beat him to death. As fate would have it, the baron is murdered the same night. Marie Catherine is shocked by the news, at first wondering who could have done this, then overwhelmed by a sense of relief at never having to see the baron again. The pleasure is short-lived, however, and in the aftermath, Marie Catherine constructs a series of lies that backfire, leading others to believe that she used poison and witchcraft to rid herself of her husband.

Bell’s reliance on historical facts and actual people who lived through the Affair of the Poisons adds a thick layer of intrigue. The same can be said about her descriptions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the time, as well as her depictions of supporting characters—such as the lady’s maid Jeanne and police chief Gabriel de la Reynie—which add a wealth of information about 17th-century Paris. Through it all, Bell successfully keeps readers in suspense about who makes it through and who doesn’t.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.

For all those who love Paris, The Disenchantment delivers a juicy romance with plenty of twists.
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If you savor the life-changing pull of a good book, The Wishing Game, the first novel from Meg Shaffer, the pen name of bestselling romance author Tiffany Reisz, is an ideal summer read. It has emotional plot twists, heartbroken but resilient characters and a feel-good ending that may not be what you had expected.

Lucy Hart was rescued by a book when she was 8 years old: The House on Clock Island by Jack Masterson. It was filled with all the things one might expect of the best escapist literature for children—mystery, adventure and just the right amount of danger. To Lucy, however, Jack’s story felt personal. His characters provided her with the love and reassurance that she had never received from her own family.

The spell deepened with each new Clock Island book, until, at the age of 13, Lucy decided to run away to the author’s private island home in Maine and be his sidekick. Against all odds, she made it to the remote location easily and met Jack, who was surprised but no less kind. She also met Hugo, the handsome 20-something British artist who illustrated the Clock Island covers. If there ever were a place where Lucy felt like she belonged, this was it. Alas, the cops were summoned (rightly so) to take her back home.

Years later, 26-year-old Lucy is working as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in California. She forms a close bond with a foster child named Christopher, whom she wishes to adopt, even though she has no money, car or security. What she does have are Clock Island books, which she reads to Christopher after school.

Unexpectedly, Jack announces that he will publish a new Clock Island book, something he hasn’t done in over a decade. Best of all, he has invited four of his biggest fans to compete in a mystery game, and the winner will receive a copy of the manuscript. No surprise, Lucy is one of the four. On the island, she becomes reacquainted with Jack (who is much older but no less energetic and kind) and Hugo (who is even dreamier than before). She also meets her fierce competition, all of whom also found comfort in Jack’s books when they were kids. As the games begin, readers begin to see the desperation, regrets and broken dreams that unite these irrepressible characters. 

In this tender spin on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Shaffer balances the darkness of emotional backstories with plenty of hopefulness, humor, plot twists and just a bit of romance. As Jack Masterson would say, wishes do come true if you are brave enough to believe in them.

Meg Shaffer balances darkness with plenty of hopefulness, humor, plot twists and just a bit of romance. As Jack Masterson would say, wishes do come true if you are brave enough to believe in them.
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There is a distinct feeling one gets while reading Tania James’ third novel: Someone needs to make this book into a movie. Steeped in the rich history of three nations and infused with a young man’s unshakable desire to do something grand, Loot is transportive storytelling at its best.

We begin in 1794, when India is still a nation of tiny kingdoms ruled by big egos, right on the cusp of British colonialism and the East India Company. India’s foremost king, Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, is in his summer palace, conjuring yet another grand plan to impress his citizenry. His current fixation is to build a larger-than-life automaton of a growling tiger pouncing on a British soldier. To achieve this technological feat, Tipu calls on the expertise of 57-year-old Lucien du Leze, a homesick clockmaker and inventor who escaped the French Revolution only to find himself on the brink of another. Lucien in turn hires 17-year-old Abbas, the youngest son of a local woodworker and the heart of this story. 

Abbas is kind, gentle and a bit rebellious. His woodcarving skills are unmatched, even though he doesn’t know that yet. Under Lucien’s tutelage, Abbas comes to terms with his gift and unearths his desire to use his craft to leave an unforgettable mark on the world. In that, he is much like his dreamy and determined king, but without the burden of defending the crown.

Tipu’s tiger automaton turns out to be a crowd-pleasing sensation, but not long after its unveiling, Tipu loses first his kingdom and then his life to the British. Lucien finds a way to escape to Rouen, France, leaving Abbas with an invitation to be his apprentice should he ever find a way to leave Mysore. The wooden tiger meets its own dreary fate as well, ending up in a musty, forgotten room in an old lady’s English castle. It’s the end of an era, but for Abbas, it’s just the beginning of an epic quest.

James’ plot is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration. Her supporting characters are woven with the same care and detail as her protagonist. All of this combines for a stimulating and informative novel, a must-read for adventurers, dreamers and lovers of history.

Tania James’ third novel is brilliant and unique, her creative liberties mixing well with the historical realities of colonialism and migration.
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U.S. Army veteran Zac Topping’s debut novel, Wake of War, is a fast-paced military thriller set in the year 2037, a time when the United States is collapsing under decades of public unrest due to partisan divisions and a malfunctioning economy.

A new rebel faction is gaining traction in Salt Lake City under the leadership of the charismatic Joseph Graham. A ragtag team of men and women, the Revolutionist Front has proven to be a haven for all those who are hellbent on justice and revenge. This includes Sam Cross, who at 14 saw government soldiers gun down her family as she ran for her life. Now 19, she’s become a deadly sniper.

Fighting for the other side is James Trent, who joined the U.S. Army not out of moral conviction but rather to earn a military scholarship for college. During his three years in the service, he has managed to be placed in noncombat administrative missions, but now an involuntary reassignment sends him to the bloodiest and most dangerous rebel territory in Salt Lake City, dropping him and his platoon directly in the line of fire from Sam and the Revolutionist Front.

Most stories of war have a clear indication of the good side and the bad, but Topping has other intentions, as the conflict unfolds in chapters that alternate between Sam’s and James’ perspectives. Through their stories, Topping grapples with the wonder and worry that many of us feel regarding the current state of our nation. 

Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, does a phenomenal job of using dialogue and scene details to impart the raw and dangerous wartime conditions that surround his characters. He focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions. Wake of War will resonate with all readers who enjoy thrillers that reflect real-world crises.

In his fast-paced debut novel, Zac Topping, who has served two tours in Iraq, focuses on the impact that unrelenting pain and helplessness have on the human soul—and how the thirst for power can corrupt the best of intentions.
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It’s impossible to predict how, exactly, you’ll fall in love with Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, but it’s an eventuality you can’t escape.

Sadie Green and Sam Masur might never have crossed paths as kids in Beverly Hills, California, were it not for personal tragedies. For Sadie, it is her older sister’s cancer. For Sam, it is a broken leg from an accident that takes his mother’s life. Forced to spend an inordinate amount of time at the hospital, Sadie and Sam meet in the drabby game room, and they are comfortable with each other from the start. Born from their shared love of video games, their friendship seems written in the stars and is devoid of the sadness that otherwise surrounds them.

Years later as college students—Sam at Harvard and Sadie at MIT—the two are thrust back into each other’s lives on a subway platform. Their reunion on that winter day is completely serendipitous yet somehow fully anticipated, as if each were patiently waiting for destiny to do its thing. It’s the 1990s, and gaming is on the cusp of something big. Almost instantly after meeting again, Sadie and Sam decide to collaborate on a video game that is unlike anything they’ve seen before. Powered by friendship, naivete and youth, they seem to pull it off, too. The game, Ichigo, becomes a worldwide hit, turning Sam and Sadie into gaming celebrities. Success follows, but not without a cost.

The latest novel from Zevin, a lifelong gamer and internationally bestselling author (The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry), is spellbinding and layered with details. Her artistic, inclusive world is filled with characters so genuine and endearing that you may start caring for them as if they were real. Above all, her development of Sam and Sadie’s relationship is pure wizardry; it’s deep and complex, transcending anything we might call a love story.

Whether you care about video games or not is beside the point. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the novel you’ve been waiting to read.

Whether you care about video games or not is beside the point. Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is the novel you've been waiting to read.

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