Lauren Bufferd

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A fatal accident, a cosmic visitor and a mysterious stranger all come together in a small Australian town in Ruby Todd’s dazzling debut, Bright Objects.

Young widow Sylvia Knight is recovering from the car accident that killed her husband and left her with serious injuries, both physical and psychological. Profoundly lonely, Sylvia works at the local mortuary, keeps her husband’s grave tidy and puts on a cheerful face for her mother-in-law, Sandy, whom she visits weekly. But she is haunted by sketchy memories of the night of the accident. Although another car was involved, nobody was arrested, but Sylvia believes she knows who was responsible. When word comes through her friend Vince that the police are closing the case, she falls into a deep depression and plans to take her own life. However, the appearance of a rare comet proves a distraction. When the comet’s discoverer, American astronomer Theo St. John, walks into the mortuary one day, Sylvia’s life takes a turn. Sylvia and Theo begin to find connection through shared meals and trips to the observatory to view the comet.

As the comet’s path draws closer to Earth, the mood in town shifts from celebratory to ominous. Joseph Evans, local meditation teacher and the heir of a wealthy family, sees the comet as a divine messenger and begins a series of mystical lectures that attract a cultlike following. He is eager to involve both Sylvia and Sandy, and Sylvia is distressed to see her mother-in-law drawn in by his promises. Conflicted in her feelings towards Theo and still wrestling with suicidal ideation, Sylvia finds her obsession with uncovering her husband’s killer pushing her to the edges of her sanity.

Bright Objects is a riveting literary thriller of obsession, vengeance and astronomy, but its most poignant gift may be its depiction of trying to make sense of life after tragedy.

Ruby Todd’s dazzling debut, Bright Objects, is a riveting literary thriller of obsession, vengeance and astronomy, but its most poignant gift may be its depiction of trying to make sense of life after tragedy.
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Mateo Askaripour’s second novel, This Great Hemisphere, is set 500 years in the future. The world is broken up into warring hemispheres, in which some of the inhabitants are born invisible and consigned to second-class citizenship (vizzers) while the manipulative Dominant Population (DPs, or dippies) rule with an iron grip.

Sweetmint, born invisible but imaginative and hardworking, is granted a highly sought-after internship with eccentric inventor Croger Tenmase. He encourages her scientific creativity, inspires her with obsolete objects like books and cameras, and teaches her to play tennis. But Sweetmint’s projects are shut down after a political assassination; the Chief Executive of the Northwestern Hemisphere is killed and Sweetmint’s long-lost brother Shanu is accused of the murder. Sweetmint is determined to locate Shanu, embarking on a quest that takes her far outside her community, forging new relationships and digging into the mysteries of her origins. Meanwhile, a power struggle ensues between ambitious politicians and ruthless generals as they vie to win the hearts and minds of the DPs in an upcoming election.

Part political thriller, part sci-fi, This Great Hemisphere revels in dystopian details with plausible roots: the ruling class controlling access to information, history and religion; the abundance of cheap processed food to keep the Invisibles in poor health; and the hypocrisy of the DPs between their pious pronouncements and secret sex clubs. At the same time, a secret Invisibles army, the “Children of Slim,” gains strength and power through collective knowledge of their shared legacy.

Askaripour’s breakthrough 2021 novel, Black Buck, was a wicked satire about a young Black man leaving his job as a barista for a position in a dubious tech start-up with cultish vibes. Similarly, This Great Hemisphere explores the allure of power and the lengths people go to gain and retain it, but it’s also a story about rebellion, resilience and the strength to shape your own future. It’s only when Sweetmint stops relying on false narratives that she can truly become the inventor she longs to be.

Part political thriller, part sci-fi, Mateo Askaripour’s second novel, This Great Hemisphere, revels in the dystopian details of a world where invisible citizens live under the control of the visible Dominant Population.
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Welsh author Carys Davies (West) is still breaking into American readership, but it won’t take her long. Her latest historical novel, Clear, which thoughtfully explores a passionate friendship set against religious and civic changes in mid-19th century Scotland, is bound to expand her audience.

John Ferguson is a poor Presbyterian minister struggling to provide for himself and his wife, Mary. Desperate, he accepts a challenging mission to evict the remaining inhabitants of a remote Shetland island. Soon after his arrival on the island, he is injured in a fall while walking the cliffs, and his unconscious body is found by Ivar, the island’s sole occupant. Ivar brings John to his croft and nurses him back to health. Unable to understand one another (Ivar speaks a dialect of an archaic Scandinavian language called Norn) the two men form a tenuous friendship and gradually share enough words to communicate, though John postpones admitting to Ivar why he is really on the island. Long-isolated and having had only animals for company, Ivar takes pleasure in living with and caring for another person, while John, who continues to keep his mission a secret, begins to have second thoughts about the morality of his assignment. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Mary grows uneasy with the nature of her husband’s undertaking and resolves to follow him, undertaking the difficult passage north on her own.

Davies sets her novel at the crux of two historical upheavals: the 1843 break of the Free Presbyterian Church from the Church of Scotland over the issue of landowners influencing the placement of clergy, and the final years of the Scottish Clearances, in which hundreds of rural poor were evicted to create additional grazing land for livestock. Davies is attentive to these details but keeps her focus on the relationships as the narrative moves seamlessly between the three main characters. With breathtaking descriptions of the natural world and a tender exploration of an unexpected friendship, Clear challenges readers’ expectations, offering a powerful and unusual story of connection.

Carys Davies sets Clear at the crux of two historic upheavals in 1800s Scotland but keeps her focus on her characters.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.
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A violent crime threatens the stability of the middle-class wife and mother at the center of Ethel Rohan’s Sing, I, a thoughtful novel about self-discovery and new beginnings.

Ester Prynn’s mother chose her name in the hopes of making her unforgettable. Ester lives with her husband, Simon, and their two teenage boys in coastal Northern California. Though amicable, the marriage has lost whatever spark it once had, and their younger son is so obsessed with video games he barely comes out of his room. On top of that, Ester’s father has advanced dementia, and she is estranged from her brothers, who remained in Montana after their mother’s death.

When a masked gunman robs the convenience store where Ester works, assaulting both her and her coworker, Crystal, Ester is badly shaken. She quits the store and gets another job as a hostess in an upscale hotel restaurant. Friends encourage her to pursue forgotten interests like singing, but she is haunted by her frustration that the gunman is still free and continuing to commit acts of violence. She’s also troubled by her unexpected attraction to Allie, a manager at the restaurant. Though Ester has long fantasized about an escape, are these feelings worth imploding her life over?

The strength of Sing, I is its focus on the ordinary and the relatable. Ester is a middle-class woman with close friends, but also beholden to her family and trapped in a low wage job. The robbery jumpstarts her out of her stupor and into the role of an active participant in her life. Other characters also struggle with the hardships of starting over, addiction and life’s disappointments.

Though it treads a predictable path, Sing, I nonetheless offers a gentle reminder of the hard-earned growth that can emerge from disruption and change.

In Ethel Rohan’s Sing, I, when a masked gunman robs the convenience store where Ester works, she is pushed to reexamine what she wants from life.
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Part campus novel, part ghost story, Xochitl Gonzalez’s second novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last, fearlessly takes on racism and misogyny in the rarefied world of fine art and art history. 

Nodding to real-life Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta and her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, the novel opens in the late 1980s with the death of artist Anita de Monte. After a violent argument with her husband, Jack Martin, Anita was found on the sidewalk outside their apartment, leaving speculators to wonder—did she jump or was she pushed? As Andre was in his real trial, Jack is acquitted and continues his successful and lucrative career, while Anita’s art is all but forgotten. Ten years later, Raquel Toro is an art history major at Brown. Her working-class, Puerto Rican background makes her feel out of place at the university and even more so in her department, where she doesn’t fit in with the privileged “Art History Girls.” Fortunes change when Raquel begins dating art major Nick Fitzsimmons, whose wealthy parents have ties to New York’s major museums and galleries, and when her advisor enthusiastically supports Raquel’s senior thesis on Jack Martin’s career. 

The dynamic between Raquel and Nick mirrors the one between Anita and Jack, with both men trying to control their partner’s physical appearance, clothing and schedule through microaggressions and expensive gifts. As Raquel’s summer internship redirects her research to include Anita’s experience, Anita’s story, told in parallel chapters, takes a turn for the uncanny; she subtly haunts Jack from beyond the grave, transforming into a bat and shifting his meticulously displayed art works. Though told with humor and a light touch, Gonzalez doesn’t shy away from serious issues: the erasure of women from the art history canon and the racism often faced by first generation students of color at Ivy League colleges. As Raquel brings Anita’s groundbreaking sculptures to light, Anita de Monte Laughs Last boldly questions the choices behind what we are taught and demands that the complete story be disclosed.

Though told with humor and a light touch, Anita de Monte Laughs Last doesn’t shy away from serious issues: the erasure of women from the art history canon and the racism often faced by first generation students of color at Ivy League colleges.
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Behind You Is the Sea, Susan Muaddi Darraj’s debut novel, brings readers into the lives of three Palestinian families in and around Baltimore: the Salamehs, the Baladis and the Ammars. Generational disputes form the core of the novel’s action, which unfolds through weddings, graduations, unplanned pregnancies and funerals. Women’s issues are also at the fore, as each of the novel’s chapters, which function as linked stories, reveal families both divided and united by class, gender and traditional values.

In the opening chapter, “A Child of Air,” teenage Reema Baladi resolves to keep her baby, while refusing to marry her Puerto Rican boyfriend. In “Mr. Ammar Gets Drunk at the Wedding,” Walid, patriarch of the wealthy Ammar family, despairs at the lack of Arab traditions at his oldest son’s wedding to an American. “Ride Along” focuses on a police officer, Marcus Salameh, and the rift between his father and his sister, Amal, over Amal’s perceived dishonor, a rupture which grows deeper after the death of their mother.

Darraj deftly explores class tensions in the titular chapter: When the Ammars employ young Maysoon Baladi as a housekeeper, she is shocked by the couple’s indolence and their spoiled teenage kids, but flirts openly with father and husband, Demetri. In a later chapter, Demetri’s daughter Hiba moves in with her grandparents after an embarrassing incident in college and an unspoken but deeply felt lack of support from her parents. The final chapter “Escorting the Body,” the only chapter not set in the United States, sees Marcus fulfilling his father’s wish to be buried in his Palestinian village, a visit which reveals dramatic secrets about the life he left behind.

Behind You Is the Sea draws a composite portrait of Palestinian American families with sensitivity and humor, its linked stories breaking down stereotypes and embracing complexity.

Behind You Is the Sea draws a composite portrait of Palestinian American families with sensitivity and humor, its linked stories breaking down stereotypes and embracing complexity.
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Kiley Reid’s sophomore effort Come and Get It is a compelling, dialogue-driven novel about consumption, desire and class set at a state university in 2017. Readers who enjoyed Reid’s debut, Such a Fun Age, will find themselves in welcome territory.

Millie, a woman whose college years were interrupted by helping an ill parent, has returned to the University of Arkansas as a 24-year-old senior, working as a resident assistant in her dorm. Mature and responsible, she fantasizes about Josh, her hunky supervisor, and is diligently saving to purchase a house. Agatha is a visiting faculty member in her late 30s, recently separated from a younger professional dancer who married her for health insurance. At the beginning of the semester, Agatha asks Millie to organize a small group of students for Agatha to interview as part of her research for a potential book on wedding traditions. What starts as an innocent gathering of information becomes a more complicated entanglement when Agatha begins paying Millie for access to the dorm to spy on the students’ personal conversations, which she then writes up as a series of demi-comic pieces for Teen Vogue. Meanwhile, a prank dreamed up by Tyler, the mean girl of the dorm, sparks a vengeful retaliation which threatens both Agatha and Millie’s livelihoods.

This reader’s advice is to follow the money, as much of Come and Get It is embedded in the details of ostensibly insignificant transactions. Reid prefers to serve her themes amid a frothy concoction of witty dialogue, campus capers and unrequited crushes, but underneath it all, her eye is firmly fixed on obsessive consumerism and intersecting issues of race and class. Though no crimes are committed, there are enough errors of judgment, blurred ethical lines and microaggressions to permanently alter the life trajectories of her characters. Yet Reid writes with enormous compassion, showing us flawed humans caught in systems outside of their control who are, mostly, doing the best they can.

Come and Get It is a frothy concoction of witty dialogue, campus capers and unrequited crushes, but underneath it all, Kiley Reid’s eye is firmly fixed on obsessive consumerism and intersecting issues of race and class.
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Tan Twan Eng’s third novel, which was longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, is set in the early 1920s, when the British writer William Somerset Maugham and his secretary (and lover) Gerald Haxton visit the coastal province of Penang, Malaysia, as the guests of Lesley and Robert Hamlyn.

Part of Penang’s European elite, Lesley and Robert live a comfortable, privileged life although their marriage is no longer as intimate as it once was and Lesley suspects Robert of having an affair. Over the course of his visit, Lesley shares her concerns with “Willie” and mentions that she was once close to the revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen, who spent time fundraising in Penang. Lesley was also a friend of Ethel Proudlock, whose murder trial in Kuala Lumpur sent shock waves through the British expat population. These details provided the seeds for several of Maugham’s future works, most notably “The Letter,” the final story in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree.

The House of Doors alternates between Lesley’s and Willie’s perspectives as Lesley unburdens herself to Willie, disclosing her fears of her husband’s infidelity and her involvement in Sun’s movement. Willie draws inspiration for his stories from Lesley and other locals, while hoping to dig himself out of a financial hole and worrying that Gerald will leave him now that money is flowing less freely.

Tan’s choice to tell the story from the view of the colonizing class highlights his characters’ limitations and blind spots. Many of the characters are living double lives; Willie hides his homosexuality, and Lesley too keeps an intimate relationship secret. Perhaps this is why, for a novel about desire and revolutionary politics, the tone of The House of Doors is surprisingly cool: The moral complexities of a colonial society are hidden behind a veneer of restraint and manners. Tan’s eye for detail and understated storytelling bring a subtle edge to this thoughtfully written, atypical historical novel that searches for the emotional truth behind the facts.

Tan Twan Eng’s eye for detail and understated storytelling bring a subtle edge to this thoughtfully written, atypical historical novel that searches for the emotional truth behind the facts.
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In 2016, Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, a radical vision of what could happen if women became the physically dominant sex, offered transformative ideas about gender and supremacy. Now, Alderman offers readers a plausible world-to-come in The Future, a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

As a teenager, Martha Einkorn left her father’s back-to-nature cult on the Northwest coast to become the personal assistant to a powerful social media entrepreneur. Lai Zhen survived the destruction of Hong Kong and a year in a refugee camp to become a survivalist influencer. When these two women meet, the attraction is immediate, but their romance is put on hold as news reports stream in of an impending apocalypse.

The Future is awash with tech billionaires, preppers and an anxious population easily swayed by algorithms. It follows executives Lenk Sketlish, founder of the social network Fantail; Zimri Nommik, who runs the largest online retailer Anvil; and Ellen Bywater, who heads Medlar, a leading PC company. These powerful techies have spared no expense to create safe havens for themselves and are ready to leave the rest of the world to face destruction.

The billionaires’ plan is thwarted by a band of rebels led by Martha and Zhen, including Ellen’s nonbinary child Badger Bywater and Zimri’s soon-to-be kicked to the curb wife Selah Nommik, who also happens to be a genius coder. With their combined expertise and shared conviction of bettering our world rather than manipulating it for their own ends, this group may just save civilization after all.

That Alderman keeps the plot moving forward despite constant shifts in perspective and time is a testament to her creative skills as a writer and a game developer. The novel never slides into parody, despite the three rather clever parallels to some of our real-life billionaires and tech leaders. Clearly, Alderman cares deeply about our future and believes that we already have the skills in place to course-correct. By the end of the novel, you might too.

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.
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Set in the 1850s in a remote Swedish village close to the Arctic Circle, Whiting Award winner Hanna Pylväinen’s second novel, The End of Drum-Time, tells the story of Lutheran minister Lars Levi Laestadius, known as Mad Lasse for his impassioned sermons and strict religious observance. Mad Lasse’s goal is to convert the Sami people to Christianity and break the cycle of alcohol dependency that he believes threatens the very souls of the Indigenous reindeer herders. 

When shaman and prominent herder Biettar Rasti experiences a religious awakening in Mad Lasse’s church, it sets off a string of events that rips through the small village, leaving it profoundly shattered. Biettar leaves his diminished herd to his son, Ivvár, and takes up residence in Mad Lasse’s home, where he can study by the pastor’s side. 

Abandoned and angry, Ivvár begins to come into town more frequently, purchasing liquor from the village store and trying to rekindle a romance with Risten, a Sami woman from a successful herding family. But when Lasse’s daughter Willa crosses paths with Ivvár, they become infatuated with each other, and eventually Willa breaks ties with her family and community to join the Sami for their annual migration from the tundra to the sea. 

Pylväinen’s first book, We Sinners (2012), was a collection of interlocking stories about a deeply religious family struggling with loss of faith and the temptations of the secular world in modern-day Michigan. The final story, “Whisky Priest,” introduced Mad Lasse and his wife, Brita. Along with these characters, Pylväinen carries forward her sensitivity to the power, comfort and destructiveness of belief into her second novel. 

With engrossing details of reindeer herding, a beautifully rendered setting and powerful echoes of America’s own dark history of settlers forcing their religion on Indigenous peoples, The End of Drum-Time will leave a lasting impression on all readers of historical fiction. 

Echoing America’s dark history of settlers forcing their religion on Indigenous peoples, The End of Drum-Time will leave a lasting impression on all readers of historical fiction.
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In Rebecca Makkai’s engrossing novel I Have Some Questions for You, a successful podcaster and film critic takes a job at a New Hampshire boarding school where, 23 years ago, a white female student named Thalia Keith was murdered. The school’s athletic trainer, a Black man named Omar Evans, was convicted of the crime and has been imprisoned for decades.

Bodie Kane sees the invitation to teach a course on podcasting at the Granby School as an opportunity to give back to her alma mater. It’s also a chance to investigate the murder of Thalia, who was Bodie’s classmate; with her interest in true crime, Bodie has had lots of time to think about how poorly the case was initially handled. Bodie suggests to her class that revisiting the case would make a good podcast, and two of the students begin what evolves into a groundbreaking inquiry. Meanwhile, a major #MeToo scandal involving Bodie’s ex-husband, a well-known visual artist, threatens her reputation, veracity and livelihood. 

Back at Granby and surrounded by the familiar landscape, classrooms and even some of the old faculty, Bodie is overwhelmed by memories of her trauma-filled childhood and wonders how those experiences might have shaped her high school years. She also starts to question her impressions of the school’s music teacher, Denny Bloch, whom she thinks may have been involved in a sexual relationship with Thalia. Bodie cannot help but subtly shape the students’ investigation, and the more time she spends at the school, the more she questions the motives of her classmates, her professors and even herself.    

Makkai places the fictional murder of Thalia Keith and imprisonment of Omar Evans in the wider context of violence against women and institutional racism. If the book has any faults, it’s that we never hear from Omar himself, and his experiences only come to Bodie second-hand. But I Have Some Questions for You is Bodie’s story, a well-plotted indictment of systemic racism and misogyny craftily disguised as a thriller and beautifully constructed to make its points.

I Have Some Questions for You is a well-plotted indictment of systemic racism and misogyny craftily disguised as a thriller and beautifully constructed to make its points.
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Genetic engineering and mutations are a staple of fiction; think The Island of Dr. Moreau, Brave New World or, more recently, Jurassic Park. Ramona Ausubel’s sparkling novel The Last Animal focuses on a young scientist’s impulsive attempt to revive an extinct species and the impact this has on her children, who are traumatized by the accidental death of their father. 

Graduate student Jane is the only female member of a scientific team working in the Arctic Circle, searching for traces of the wooly mammoth and hoping to reignite an ecosystem that could possibly reverse the effects of global warming. She is accompanied (begrudgingly) by her two teenage daughters, the fiery, sarcastic Eve and sweetly obedient Vera. The girls crave routine and stability, and they are fiercely protective of their mother as well as each other. 

Eve and Vera’s accidental discovery of a perfectly preserved baby mammoth in the Siberian permafrost brings a flurry of excitement. But once back at the University of California, Berkeley, Jane is still washing pipettes in the lab while research grants are handed out to her male colleagues. At a departmental fundraiser, Jane has a chance encounter with a glamorous woman named Helen, who has a palatial estate and home zoo in Italy, complete with giraffes and an elephant. This leads to Jane implanting a genetically modified embryo, based on the baby mammoth’s DNA, into Helen’s elephant. The next thing you know, Jane and her daughters are flying to Lake Como to meet an animal that’s been extinct for hundreds of years. 

The Last Animal whizzes around the planet—from the steppes of Siberia to the shores of Iceland to a remote alpine village—with a dizzying, almost madcap speed, but at the novel’s heart are the deep ties between mother and daughters, sister and sister, human and animal. Though Jane, Eve and Vera are grieving, they never lose their sense of adventure and love of scientific discovery. Ausubel crafts this moving story with wit and depth, allowing readers to witness a family drawn together by both loss and a sense of wonder at an ever-changing planet.

Ramona Ausubel crafts this moving story with wit and depth, allowing readers to witness a family drawn together by both loss and a sense of wonder at an ever-changing planet.

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