16 January 2019

The Quest for the Crown of Thorns by Cynthia Ripley Miller

A Discovered Diamond
shortlisted for book of the month



"a well-written piece of historical fiction"

AMAZON UK

Book 2 of the ‘Long Hair Saga’

Fictional Saga / Adventure / Romance
AD 454
Holy Land / Italy / Constantinople

"AD 454. Three years after the Roman victory over Attila the Hun at Catalaunum, Arria Felix and Garic the Frank are married and enjoying life on Garic’s farm in northern Gaul (France). Their happy life is interrupted when a cryptic message arrives from Arria’s father, the esteemed Senator Felix, calling them to Rome. At Arria’s insistence, but against Garic’s better judgment, they leave at once.
   On their arrival at Villa Solis, they are confronted with a brutal murder and a dangerous mission. The fate of a profound and sacred object—Christ’s Crown of Thorns—rests in their hands. They must carry the holy relic to the safety of Constantinople, away from a corrupt emperor and old enemies determined to steal it for their own gain. But a greater force arises against them—a secret cult who will commit any atrocity to capture the Crown. All the while, the gruesome murder and the conspiracy behind it haunt Arria’s thoughts.
   Arria and Garic’s marital bonds are tested but forged as they partner together to fulfill one of history’s most challenging missions, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns."

One tends to think of the possession of religious relics as a Medieval Catholic obsession so the beginning of this story made me wonder why I had never considered where, if the relics were genuine, they had been hidden or on display during the Roman period after the death of Christ and during the Dark Ages. The story hinges on this: a Roman senator knows where part of one of the most sacred Christian relics, the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion, can be located and entrusts his daughter Arria Felix to convey it to safety in Constantinople. The senator is subsequently murdered and Arria, who is prepared to carry out his request, has additional troubles of her own: a husband, the evil-minded former legate, Drusus, who is supposed to be dead but isn’t – whom she’d much prefer to be dead because she has married his enemy – and her half-sister, Marcella, a freed concubine whose mother is set on gaining recognition and for her own reasons seeks revenge on Arria’s immediate family.

The novel opens with a slave, Malchus, taking possession of the crown of thorns then the narrative sets off at a cracking pace to weave in backstory from the previous novel, the tribulations of the couple Arria and Garic the Frank, and the Roman politics and conditions of the epoch, transporting the reader from Calgary to 5th Century northern Gaul, to Lucca in what is now Tuscany, then along the Appian Way from Rome to Brindisi across the Middle Sea to Constantinople.

Dangers lie at every turn for Arria and Garic. Rivalry, ambition and petty hate, plots and alliances, deceit and deception, plus some very unpleasant people and a religious cult, the Sons and Daughters of Malchus, who want the relic for themselves, which all go to make the Arria’s mission a remarkable adventure. But while the story reads at times like a modern thriller, Ripley Miller also gives the reader period details about customs, lifestyle and housing; the sensory description of meals and garden locations alone suggest a great deal of background reading and investigation. This description adds to the story without intruding, making The Quest for the Crown of Thorns a well-written piece of historical fiction, ideal for readers who enjoy page-turning romances.

© Review by J.G. Harlond




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15 January 2019

Mid-Month Extra: January

Starting our new mid-month series 
about novels that come as a series!


SUSAN GROSSEY's SAM PLANK SERIES
by Richard Tearle
dfw-sg-plank-group5 cropped

I first became acquainted with Constable Sam Plank in the fourth novel of Susan Grossey's series, 'Portraits of Pretence', which I reviewed here for Discovering Diamonds. Pardon the pun, but he 'arrested' my attention from the beginning. That I was introduced to Sam late in the proposed seven volume series (five are available at the time of writing) is irrelevant: each story is stand alone and can be enjoyed individually.

But, as with every series, it is always best to read each volume in order and this is what I did in order to write this overview. When I had finished, I felt some sadness that I would not meet Sam again for some time and this is a sure sign of an extremely good series.

So let us go back to the beginning. We are in Regency London in the 1820s. In terms of law enforcement it is a time just after the Bow street Runners and just before an organised Metropolitan Police Force. Constable Plank serves magistrates from a base: Great Marlborough Street in his case. The constables served or carried out warrants issued by the magistrates and often carried out investigations on the magistrate's behalf, for there were no detectives. They arrested men and women who they knew might well hang for their crimes if found guilty.  Alongside him, most of the time, is Constable William Wilson, young, inexperienced  and eager.

Sam is married to Martha and has been for close on twenty years. Despite their best efforts, they are childless and have accepted that as their lot in life. They are an ideal couple, Sam and Martha. Soul Mates. They have few secrets and share everything. Although uneducated when they met, Sam has taught Martha to read and write and she is his sounding board whenever he has a problem concerning his work, for she is actually very intelligent and can present things to him 'from a woman's viewpoint'.

Many other characters flit in and out of Sam's world, some permanent, some temporary. Most notable of the former is John Conant, a magistrate whom Sam  principally serves, sometimes to the annoyance of other magistrates. But, having similar views on justice, they get along very well.

These, then, are the main characters. Beautifully drawn, human with foibles, serious thinkers and more concerned with the Spirit of the Law than the Letter of the Law. Sensible and forward thinking, in other words. But Ms Grossey takes them forward in their lives, most noticeably Constable Wilson. In Fatal Forgery, their first outing, William is barely in it but when he is he is raw and perhaps a little impetuous. Little hints from Sam – like ensuring that he always uses his notebook – let us know that Sam is going to take him under his wing. He teaches him how to think things through based on what he has noted down. By Worm in the Blossom, the third in the series, William is a much more rounded character and come  Faith, Hope and Trickery (Book 5) he is considering getting married to a character who makes her appearance in the series. And that is another of the wonderful things that the author does: she introduces  characters and develops many of them more and more over the ensuing stories.

Yet there is much more than just some wonderful characters to this series. Although murders take place at some point in the story, they are not always the start point. The author has some experience in financial crime – on the right side of the law, I hasten to add – and this is evident in her plot lines: forgery, blackmail and investment scams. At the time, many of these could be punishable by death or, at best, deportation. Self murder, or suicide, was also classed as a crime and could bring shame on  members of the family.

The language of the times is authentic (there is a glossary at the end of each book defining some of the words and phrases used) without ever being stereotypical. Another blessing is that no one story is all about the 'low life' of the city – although, obviously, they appear – but mostly about the rich and the ordinary. The gullible and the vulnerable.

The stories are not continuous in the sense that, having concluded one case, Sam and William move straight onto the next one: there is a year or even two between adverntures which may – or may not – allow scope for even more of the seven planned books. Personally, I hope so. And neither are the cases solved overnight – they can take weeks and sometimes months to crack.

However, there is one thing I haven't mentioned. And that is atmosphere. Whether in an alehouse, Newgate Prison, Bartholomew's Fair or even Bedlam and, whatever the season, the atmosphere is there to feel, smell and almost taste.

I lied. There were two things I hadn't mentioned and the other is the setting: London. As a Londoner myself, I worked in what we now call the West End for quite a few years. I worked in Berners Street  (mentioned in Fatal Forgery) which is just on the other side of Oxford Street to Great Marlborough Street where Sam's working base is. Ms Grossey takes us on plenty of walking tours in that area and those brought many memories flooding back for me. You see, shops and houses change, but streets don't. I'm sure the architecture today would baffle Sam Plank and William Wilson if they could revisit, but they would still be able to find their way around. And the beauty of this setting is that it is in neither the high class areas around Park Lane and Mayfair nor the dingy, overcrowded areas of, say, Whitechapel or Stepney. It is somewhere in between them, both geographically and in terms of 'class' – and that is in itself somewhat unusual in novels of this time period or a little later which tend to concentrate on one or the other.

The author knows her subject: descriptions of how the law worked then feels right and so I have no reason to question their authenticity.

I don't think that there have been many 'detective' novels written that did  not require a chance meeting, an overheard remark or a fortunate coincidence and this is the case here, but never so outrageous that they stretch the reader's belief. All loose ends are very neatly tied up at the end of each instalment.

Few fictional characters have grabbed me as Sam and Martha have; this really is a series that I can heartily recommend.

© Richard Tearle

Read The Review




14 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Figurehead by Bill Kirton



"The technical side of things, how to build a watertight wooden ship, how to make rope and the almost sensual way to carve a figurehead, the most important part of a sailing vessel, is spot on"

AMAZON UK

Mystery
1800s
Scotland

There’s a body on the beach, and it looks like they drowned. This is not unusual in Aberdeen in the 1840s and initially, it seemed that it was just another accident. The local law will round up the usual suspects and life will continue.

The deceased, Jimmie Crombie, was a sharp businessman; disliked by everyone, from his wife Jessie to William Anderson, for whom he was building a new ship. He owed everyone money, including John Grant, the man carving the figurehead for Anderson’s ship. John is drawn into investigating when he sees suspicious marks on the body which make it look like more than a drunken accident. And he has his own reason to find out, an unsolved crime that he suffered from still haunts him.

The problem he has is: where to start? It seems that everyone has a motive and he must be careful, the people he works with and the shipyard can be dangerous places; accuse the wrong man and he could end up in the same situation. If that wasn’t enough, the figurehead he is carving has a deception of its own, the widower John, develops what could become more than a friendship with Anderson’s daughter, Helen. If society would ever allow such a thing.

Bill Kirton has written more than an amateur detective story set in the past, he has captured the very essence of a city in flux, its ever-changing cast brought in and out with the tide. The relationship between the classes and their lives is shown in absorbing detail as John investigates. You can see the teeming streets, the dark alleys and bars. The smell of the fish-market on the breeze. The drunkenness of Saturday night and its aftermath. You feel the gulf between Anderson in his mansion and Jessie, Jimmie Crombie’s widow, in her hovel. The growing friendship across class between John and Helen is tenderly drawn and adds another layer to the story.

The solving of the crime is well paced, the suspicion shifting from one person to another as more is discovered about the lives of the characters, revealing just how little John knows of the people he spends his life with. There is no final dramatic exposition, none is needed. Instead we have a logical conclusion, perfectly described.

And all this is intertwined with the story of building a ship and carving its figurehead. The technical side of things, how to build a watertight wooden ship, how to make rope and the almost sensual way to carve a figurehead, the most important part of a sailing vessel, is spot on. This realism helps to construct the world of the tale.

When I had finished, I wanted to know what happens to the characters next; to me this is the mark of a master story-teller.



© Richard Dee



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11 January 2019

A Discovered Diamond: Rational Creatures: Stirrings of Feminism in the Hearts of Jane Austen's Fine Ladies

by Various Authors: Elizabeth Adams, Nicole Clarkston, Karen M Cox,  J.Marie Croft, Amy D'Orazio, Jenetta James, Jessie Lewis, KaraLynne Mackrory, Lona Manning, Christina Morland, Beau North, Sophia Rose, Anngela Schroeder, Joana Starnes, Caitlin Williams. 
Edited by Christina Boyd


"all [the stories] are the same high standard regarding research and stature of writing – in other words, very well written."

AMAZON UK
 (The Quill Collective Book 3)

 Jane Austen / Regency Romance
1800s
England

Jane Austen: True romantic or rational creature? Her novels transport us back to the Regency, a time when well-mannered gentlemen and finely-bred ladies fell in love as they danced at balls and rode in carriages. Yet her heroines, such as Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, and Elinor Dashwood, were no swooning, fainthearted damsels in distress. Austen's novels have become timeless classics because of their biting wit, honest social commentary, and because she wrote of strong women who were ahead of their day. True to their principles and beliefs, they fought through hypocrisy and broke social boundaries to find their happily-ever-after.”

This is a collection of stories by sixteen different authors, all with one thing in common – their admiration for Miss Jane Austen’s ‘Rational Creatures’ heroines. The stories are, in their words: “humorous, poignant love stories set in Georgian England that complement and pay homage to Austen's great works and great ladies who were, perhaps, the first feminists in an era that was not quite ready for feminism.” These are behind-the-scenes alternative view stories, a peep-behind-the curtains, or listening from the room next door type tales, vignettes of what might have made Austen’s ladies tick, their motives and motivations.


I did wonder, on receiving the e-file of this book to review, whether we really needed yet another ‘Austen look-alike’ compilation of stories, but then Jane Austen is popular, and being frank, authors have a living to make and if they can write what sells, well, good luck to them. 

As I read, however, I decided that I was wrong: Austen readers, and probably those not familiar with her work, will enjoy these stories for they are not just about the familiar female figures –  Miss Elizabeth and Miss Jane Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, the Dashwoods, Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price, but we also have the (outside of Austen circles) not so well-knowns - Mary Crawford, Anne Elliot, Sophia Croft, Penelope Clay, Louisa Musgrove, Catherine Morland, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Susan Vernon. Not all Austen fans will necessarily agree with the imaginative interpretations of the characters’ views and perspectives of scenes that are set apart from Austen’s own narrative, but even if they do not, these stories should spark a few ‘I wonder?’ ideas.

I recall when Pride and Prejudice was set to come to our TV scenes, the uproar about viewing Mr Darcy (played by Colin Firth) ‘behind the scenes’ – the shots of him in his bath, fencing with his fencing master, walking homeward with that wet shirt … all scenes which, once aired, were very well received because we, the viewers, appreciated this different perspective.

The stories vary from prequels to sequels, to ‘as they happen’ in Austen’s novels. Some are first person narrative, some third, all are different in style, but all are the same high standard regarding research and stature of writing: thoughtful explorations of the characters and their situations – in other words, very well written.

So I have changed my mind. Rational Creatures is a  ‘must’ to read!


© Ellen Hill



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10 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of For the Crown by Susan Appleyard


"For readers who want the history, Ms Appleyard is spot on for relating the customs and events of the periods she writes about"

AMAZON UK  

Romance
1400s
Scotland

Robbie, Bastard of Ovedale, is a warden of the East March of Scotland. Chasing Scottish raiders across the border is his life’s work and his love. On one such jaunt, he goes after a youth who has wounded his friend, only to discover that the youth is a girl, Mary Margaret Douglas. His mortification is complete when she renders him immobile by the application of pressure to a sensitive spot. Once he has regained control of the situation, he realises that his best option is to keep the red-haired virago with him until he can ransom her back to her family. The problem is her brothers don’t want her. That’s just one of the problems. Another is that Robbie is beginning to like her, but worst of all is the question of what to do with her now.
Robbie is summoned to war. He has to take the Scottish lass with him, but she is disruptive because she inspires the men to lust, including the despicable Lord Clifton who wants her for himself – at least for a week or two – and will stop at nothing, including murder, to get what he wants. Robbie’s father and his overlord, the Earl of Northumberland, want him to get rid of her, but it’s too late for that. Although he doesn’t know it, Robbie is falling in love.”

For readers who want the history, Ms Appleyard is spot on for relating the customs and events of the periods she writes about, her research iis well done, although I do have a slight worry about a certain Forest being mentioned in the 1490s, when it was actually planted in the 1920s, but perhaps the author knows more about the history of it than I do.

The unfolding events are entertaining and Robbie’s situation is amusing, but maybe the pace of the plot itself is a little on the ambling side? It took me a while to get into the story because of the historical detail: for me personally, I would have enjoyed the flow of the story rather than lingering on the 'facts'.  I came across the odd typo here and there, but those aside, I cannot fault the actual writing, nor the charm of the characters. 

Lovers of this period should enjoy the read.


© Ellen Hill






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9 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Queen of Martyrs by Samantha Wilcoxson


"Ms Wilcoxson does a good job of depicting the hurting, insecure Mary. She’s a bit like a fledgling, shoved out of the nest too soon and expected to fend for herself despite not being able to fly."

AMAZON UK

Biographical Fiction
1500s / Mary Tudor
England

Usually, books set in the Tudor period tend to concentrate on two female protagonists, namely Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth. Yes, there are the odd books about the tragic Catherine of Aragon or some of Henry VIII’s other wives, but mostly it’s about Anne and Elizabeth. Henry VIII’s eldest daughter—the girl he treated so cruelly when he had his sights set on making many, many sons with Anne Boleyn—has rarely been given much time in the limelight. No, Mary Tudor is often treated as something of a parenthesis, far more interesting as a threat to Elizabeth’s future potential than as a person in her own right.

In Queen of Martyrs, Ms Samantha Wilcoxson presents us with a Mary of flesh and blood, a young woman permanently traumatised by her father’s disowning of her mother and her subsequent bastardisation. Mary is very young when everything she once took for granted is taken from her—including her beloved mother. Instead, to really rub salt into the wounds, Mary is dispatched to join Elizabeth’s household, there to wait on the little princess that has usurped her place in her father’s affection. As we all know, it didn’t take long until Henry subjected Elizabeth to a similar degradation, but in difference to Mary, Elizabeth was too young to fully comprehend how her status had changed. Mary, on the other hand, goes from being secure in her role as her father’s only heir to being torn apart by insecurities—her love for her father tainted by fear for what he might do to her next.

Ms Wilcoxson does a good job of depicting the hurting, insecure Mary. She’s a bit like a fledgling, shoved out of the nest too soon and expected to fend for herself despite not being able to fly. There is something very vulnerable and naïve about this Mary, an innocence that she retains throughout her life. While I am not entirely convinced the historical Mary was that much of an innocent, I applaud Ms Wilcoxson for the effort she has put into painting this portrait of a woman most of us dismiss as Bloody Mary.

It is patently obvious Ms Wilcoxson knows her period and her protagonist. I like the little details, the way rituals of the time are interwoven into the story. I enjoy the insight offered into various minor characters, people who were staunchly loyal to Mary throughout her life. I am intrigued by Ms Wilcoxson’s Elizabeth—a calculating, careful woman who shows little emotion and who has her eyes firmly set on the ultimate prize, the English throne.

Most of all, I feel compassion for Mary and her lonely road through life. A woman who wanted only to love and be loved was given little opportunity to do either. Her husband, Philip II, beds her out of duty, and while she manages to deceive herself into believing he loves her for a while, ultimately Mary is too intelligent to fall for her own deception.

Writing a book about Mary without approaching the infected issue of her persecution of heretics is impossible. Ms Wilcoxon does not shy away from this difficult subject and presents the reader with a Mary who sees it as her God-given duty to cleanse England of the heresies that could potentially damn all her English subjects to everlasting hell. Mary’s intense and personal relationship with God is her one mainstay throughout her life. In a life markedly devoid of love and affection, a life tinged by sorrows, this woman finds solace in the belief that at least she is doing God’s bidding.

All in all, Queen of Martyrs offers interesting insight into the personality of a woman who is easy to dismiss as a bigot. There are times when the narrative could have been tighter, and now and then I am distracted by the recurring POV slips, but overall I am impressed by Ms Wilcoxson’s presentation of this proud and so very, very lonely queen.

© Anna Belfrage




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8 January 2019

The Carpet Weaver of Uşak by Kathryn Gauci.

A Discovered Diamond
Shortlisted for Book of the Month


"I expected to enjoy this book and I did."

AMAZON UK  

Family Drama
20th century
Anatolia and Greece
.
There are two villages in Anatolia. Pinarbaşi is Turkish, Stravrodromi is Greek. The only thing that divides them is a road. Their people live together in complete harmony. In reading about the relationship between the two villages, I got a sense that the march of time had left them behind. Mention of a caravanserai, camel trains, goat-herders, and the excitement produced in the women by a chiming clock, all suggest a simple people living simple lives according to a simple ethic: Help your neighbours; they are your family. They could as easily (apart from the clock) belong to biblical times.

The lifeblood of the two villages is the carpet-weaving industry. Aspasia, a gentle, curious woman weaves exquisite carpets. Her husband Christophoros, a proud, hardworking and generous man works in Uşac for a carpet company. They are an adoring couple, whose language is spiced with tender endearments. They long for a child.

Then a bullet fired in faraway Sarajevo changes everything. In the villages, no one knows where Sarajevo is or who Archduke Franz-Ferdinand is or why war has been declared. The young men are summoned to fight, the Ottomans side with Germany and Austria, the Greeks with Russia and the allies. They march away and many are never heard from again. The war also impacts the carpet industry as the women are called upon to turn their skills to making blankets. Production is reduced but even so, carpets stockpile. After the war, further hardship for the two villages begins, testing friendships in the struggle for survival.

There is great depth to this book. The author invites us to look at our lives with all our sophisticated toys and gadgets and ask if we are any happier than women who thrilled at the chiming of a clock. The horrors of war, the ruin and devastation it brings to ordinary people, is juxtaposed by the birth of a child and the hope it brings; and also with a delightful description of Anatolia in spring. I have no faults to pick except that there were a few grammatical errors or typos, minor things, but I think the copy I read was an ARC - a pre-publish proof copy, so these would probably have been picked up in a final edit.

In keeping with the characters, the writing is simple and concise, with no dramatic flourishes or superfluity. I expected to enjoy this book and I did. It’s a story of love, friendship, courage, loss and war, superbly told, set during an epic and tragic event I suspect few know about. I didn’t. 

© Susan Appleyard





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7 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of Son of a Preacher Man by Karen M. Cox


"The author writes with lovely prose, a rock-solid voice, and a fine ear for the period and region."

AMAZON UK

Family Drama
1950s/1960s
Virginia

After recovering from the initial shock that this historical fiction book was set in the year I was born, I found the chapters of Karen Cox’s Son of a Preacher Man a delightful romp through a rural Virginia teetering on the cusp of the tectonic changes the ‘60s would bring. Billy Ray Davenport and Lizzie Quinlan, the well-drawn main characters, are a study in contrasts. The eponymous preacher’s son, Billy Ray, finds himself apprenticed the summer before he heads off to medical school to a doctor in one of the small towns on his father’s preaching circuit. Lizzie comes from the wrong side of the tracks with some dubiously deserved baggage as the town’s trollop. Although their staggering into romance is inevitable from the start, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable unfolding.

The author writes with lovely prose, a rock-solid voice, and a fine ear for the period and region. The supporting cast is well thought out and sufficiently developed for their narrative purposes, although one or two—the doctor’s oversexed and vindictive daughter is an example—were a bit too straight out of central casting. This was only a minor distraction. As I progressed through the book, a subtle familiarity began to emerge—not surprising given the author’s manifest interest in Jane Austen. The initially haughty Billy Ray and the precocious and independent-minded Lizzie  (note the name) were certainly redolent of Pride and Prejudice, but not so heavy handedly that it raised much more than a wry smile from another devoted fan of Ms. Austen.

The book is at its strongest when confined to the environs of Orchard Hill, Lizzie's hometown and the site of Billy Ray’s medical apprenticeship. This fictitious southern Virginia town is so vividly—almost lovingly—drawn that it springs from the pages in three-dimensional technicolor, full of sounds and smells and quotidian bustle. The author captures the rhythm of life with pitch-perfect accuracy and detail: the Sunday supper, summer nights on the front porch swing, bored teenagers cruising by the steamy laundromat where Lizzie and Billy Ray stand out front to catch a breath of breeze. The depiction of a languid, sultry summer without air conditioning was a delight to read and provided an atmospheric analog to the smoldering sexuality between the two main characters. However, the narrative loses some of its punchy tautness when the action moves to the city where Billy Ray is in medical school.

Overall, the book was an enjoyable read that went down like sweet tea in August. It  would have gained from another thoughtful revision of the last quarter, since it seemed the author was struggling to find her way to a satisfactory ending. During these last chapters the dialogue between the main characters, previously true to the voices of two young people on the brink of independent adulthood, veers off course a little. Although Billy Ray, as one would expect from a preacher’s son, peppers his speech throughout the book with Biblical odds and ends—something quite natural in Virginia, I can assure you as a current resident—he slides perilously close to exegesis toward the end, with his chapter-and-versing ponderous at times. Both Lizzie and Billy Ray begin to speak in long, discursive paragraphs that cut against their carefully crafted personalities.

Regardless of these few weaknesses, this is a delightful read filled with characters and places I found as comfortable to slip into as a favorite pair of jeans.

© Jeffrey K. Walker



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