Category Archives: Audiobook Reviews

Book revue: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Book revue: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Norman was not, technically speaking a psychopath, but you might be.

Just finished “The Psychopath Test: A journey Through the Madness Industry” by the guy who brought you “The Men Who Stare At Goats.” The book, not the movie.

Ronson’s prose reads like TV, especially with the juicy chapter stops built like commercial breaks, but that’s not a bad thing. This is a lively, fun read and thought-provoking to boot.  The thesis, and the main focus of the book, is that psychopaths are a lot more ubiquitous in our society than we know and funnily enough, psychopathic tendencies align very well with characteristics can that make one stunningly popular and successful in politics, business, etc.


Ronson comes upon the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, meets its architect and other interested individuals including psychopathic patients and captains of industry, and begins picking at the notion that our society actually rewards madness, even requires it in a subtle, sinister, reality TV-based way.

There’s more thought provoking here than thought following or thought fleshing, but it’s not a superficial book. To chase down the implications that occur to Ronson through his journey would require academic treatises and senate subcommittees and possibly jackbooted shock troops. It’s just that while the premise concerns our wider society, the only insights ultimately furnished are local ones about you, what you’re watching on telly, and if you’re over-medicating your kids or being over-medicated yourself. It’s very worthwhile, and I recommend the book. Go on and buy it. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to lend out and revisit once Campaign 2012 really gets underway.

(Google “Newt Gingrich psychopath.” You know you want to. Or you will after you read this.)

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by | January 29, 2012 · 5:27 pm

Audiobook Review – Pandora’s Star By Peter Hamilton

Original artwork for Pandora's Star by Jim Burns.

I struggled with this one.  One hour into Pandora’s Star, I was beginning to wonder if I had chosen a dud.  With this particular audiobook, one hour was about 1/40th the way through.  So the thought of riding this thing out to the end began to wear on me.  But I persisted.  And I’m so glad I did because, and it makes me wince as write the words, it gets really good about halfway through.

Peter Hamilton does space opera on a grandiose scale.  The word “epic” is woefully and inappropriately applied to decidedly un-epic things all the time these days, so I hesitate to invoke the word for fear of sounding like a snowboarder after a day on the slopes.  But I assure you, Pandora’s Star is truly, fiendishly, unrelentingly Epic.

The idea of attempting a plot synopsis fills me with inertia.  I would have to start by saying that while the over-arching genre is sprawling space opera, there is also quite a bit of espionage, political intrigue, police procedural and travel narrative mixed in.  This is what you would call “hard” science fiction.  It makes the assumption that you don’t need things like faster-than-light travel, wormholes, cybernetic enhancements, and multiple life rejuvenations explained to you.  Which is great, because if Hamilton took the time to explain it the way he takes the time to build worlds through stunning yet sometimes overlong descriptive set pieces, the book would be three times as long.  Hamilton loves detail and goes deep.  When he does, you’d better hang on.  Sometimes it can be a bit overcooked, but the price you pay makes the universe he has so painstakingly constructed that much more vivid.

Lame, generic, undoubtedly Americanized audiobook virtual cover.

The story begins in the not-too-distant future as humans are making their first exploratory steps onto Mars.  A manned spaceflight has just landed and all of earth is watching those fateful first steps as two merry prankster scientists open a wormhole and join the mission, crashing the landing party and thus relegating the very idea of spaceship travel to the dustbin of history before it ever begins.  Fast-forward several hundred years and wormhole technology has allowed humans to travel from star system to star system with ease.  Hamilton imagines an intergalactic railway system where trains travel planet to planet via tunnels containing wormhole gateways to your planetary destination.  It’s a marvelously delicious old-fashioned twist that is fleshed out with descriptions of the trains and names given to the engines.

On a distant planet, a lone astronomer witness something spectacular– a binary star pair blinks out of existence.  Stars don’t just turn off on their own. The best guess is that some sort of barrier has surrounded each star.  Is this an offensive maneuver to keep the baddies out or a defensive maneuver to harness the power of the system’s sun?  Someone or something has caused this and the proper thing to do is investigate.  But the pair of stars is out of wormhole range.  A spaceship must be built.  The story splits into numerous directions involving a cast of dozens that all tangle together in a ways that would delight Dickens and dazzle Dostoyevsky.  What unfolds is a mostly interesting and entertaining tale of a cosmic conspiracy hinted at in the book’s title.

Which all sounds perfectly cromulent on its face.  But I have to go back to the beginning to air my grievances.  The main reason this audiobook was so difficult to get into is John Lee’s narration.  It’s not bad, but Lee’s voice has a sonorously lugubrious, aloof quality that I found easy to tune out.  After the sharp and spry narration of the past few books I’ve listened to, it was hard to adjust to.  His voice characterization is very same-ish throughout, making it tough at times to remember who is who, though I can’t blame him entirely for that.  There are just too many characters to expect even the most expert impersonator to give unique voice to each one.  He tries, but falls short.  This is especially in evidence when curses are required.  Unless you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, I don’t recommend listening to this book at bedtime.  Too often, I fell asleep and had to find my place the next day only to discover several hours had passed.

Thankfully, when the story really kicks into gear, the shortfalls of the narration fall away.  I actually came to like Lee’s voice and style, it just took some time to get there.  Pandora’s Star is the first in a two-volume set Hamilton has called “The Commonwealth Saga.”  The second volume is Judas Unchained, which I have already started.  There is no choice.  Hamilton leaves Pandora’s reader/listener hanging with a seriously cheeky cosmic poke in the eye to the very notion of a cliffhanger.  I can only say that when it ended, I actually said “Noooo!!!” aloud.  So I’d say that’s a recommendation.

But it’s a recommendation with a few caveats.  First and foremost, this is one for the true-believers.  If you haven’t read some of the sci fi classics and are unfamiliar with a few of the genre’s “gimme” conceits, you’ll be lost.  This is not an entry level science fiction book.  Second– and I say this reluctantly– a niggling twinge inside tells me I may have been better off reading this one.  And I may yet go back and do it.

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Audiobook Review – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

When I first read the reviews for Ready Player One, I thought it sounded like too precious a love letter to ’80s nostalgia and nerd-boy fantasy in-jokes.  I’m always skeptical of someone else’s nostalgia.  My memories of The Way Things Were are precious and specific.  Agree with me and we’re members of the same secret handshake society.  Tarnish my memory and you may as well have insulted my mother.  This is especially true in book form where I can’t challenge the author’s recollection or make the case for mine.

Perhaps because I was a teenager at the time, I’ve found the past several years’ worth of nostalgia for the  Reagan era particularly irksome.  Then again, when I  survey the current pop culture, I can understand why any era but now looks infinitely better.  Was Debbie Gibson better than Justin Bieber?  No, but I’d take the worst pop music of the ’80s over the best pop music of today.  The key for me, and part of the reason I think Ready Player One is successful, is that back then, there was still an underground, a counterculture, something beyond what was on Top 40 radio and MTV.  Even though MTV grudgingly gave over 120 Minutes a week to play “underground” music back then, there was no such thing as “geek chic” or “cool nerdyness.”  If you were a nerd, skater, punk rocker or new waver, you were weird.  An outcast.  It was as much a badge of honor as it was a source of pain.

So after my initial trepidation, I succumbed to the novel’s intriguing premise and used a precious Audible credit.  Set in the post-collapse era of the 2040s in an America devastated by decades of recession, where trailer parks have become sprawling suburban ghettos with trailers stacked several stories on top of each other, a revolutionary game maker has just died and left his vast fortune inside the virtual world he created.  But there’s a catch– the fortune can only be found by means of an elaborate scavenger hunt, which sets off a worldwide craze that has everyone researching every aspect of James Halliday, the game’s notoriously ’80s-obsessed, super geek creator.

Halliday was one of the earliest game designers.  He came of age in the 80s, programmed many successful video games, made huge piles of cash, and then disappeared.  He emerged many years later with his newest invention, the OASIS– a virtual universe with thousands of planets which are accessed via immersion rigs the player uses to interact with his environment.   Though it started as an MMORPG, gradually people began to live their lives in the OASIS, going to school, working and socializing virtually.  For most people, life inside the OASIS is infinitely better than reality.

The virtual world here will be nothing new to readers of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.  In fact, with millions of people playing games like World of Warcraft and and living a virtual Second Life, the OASIS doesn’t sound far-fetched at all.  Cline does introduce interesting ideas about what getting a virtual education could be like.  But Ready Player One is more interested in furthering a story than introducing new ideas.  And the story here is the age-old story of the young man on a quest.

Our hero, Wade Watts, is a high school kid who lives in one of the aforementioned trailer park stacks and has, like everyone else in the world, become consumed with Haliday and the hunt for his fortune.  The scavenger hunt involves a riddle that, five years after Haliday’s death, no one has been able to solve.  Many people have even begun to speculate it was an elaborate ruse, but Watts, via his OASIS avatar, Parzival, persists.  And what do you know?  All that ’80s research pays off and Parzival finds the first clue, setting off the worldwide craze anew.

The rest of the novel is Parzival’s quest to unlock the three gates that will lead to Haliday’s riches.  In the grand tradition of all great quests, he gets by with a little help from some friends and danger lurks around every corner in the form of a mega corporation that wants to turn the OASIS into a commercialized hellscape against Haliday’s wishes.

With such a simple and proven premise, it would be tempting to think Ready Player One would appeal to a wide audience.  But, like the games and stories it’s so in love with, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  If you are not familiar with ’80s culture, and to some extent ’80s subculture, you will miss all the best references, get few of the jokes, and generally be made to feel how those of us who loved this stuff back in the day felt– not invited to the cool kids’ party.  Ready Player One is the ultimate Revenge  of the Nerds.  This one is for us, the ones who were hassled by the jocks and called fags because we dressed funny and had weird hair.  And though it is far from perfect, there is much here to revel in.

The story is good, solidly written and well-told.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it is filled with knowing grin moments.  But there is one reason I believe you should get the audiobook version.  Wil Wheaton.  The story is told from Parzival’s perspective and Wil Wheaton positively is Wade Watts.  He owns the performance and comes across as intimate and believable.  Wheaton even gets a shout-out in the story, which I did laugh out loud at.  I give the narration hefty weight when reviewing audiobooks and I would say Wheaton’s performance may even actually elevate the material here.  He suits the book perfectly.

Overall, it’s a fun listen.  You know how it’s going to end, but the ride is entertaining.  Especially when that ride is a DeLorean spaceship.

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Audiobook Review – Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War is one of the many books that’s been on my ever-expanding list of books I can never find second hand.  I’ve heard and read a lot of good things about it, most comparing it favorably to Robert Heinlein’s seminal sci-fi classic, Starship Troopers.  Comparisons like this generally do poor service to the work and the reader.  But they are often made, causing fans of the former to buy the latter.  This is especially true of us sad sci-fi readers who seem to always be looking for a book that will rouse the same feelings of joy, excitement and discovery as when we first read Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, or the other old masters who made us realize that good science fiction could also be good literature.

The story begins with, as you might have gleaned from the title, an old man.  We meet out intrepid protagonist, John Perry, just as he turns 75.  In this unspecified but not-too-distant future, old folks can enroll in the Colonial Defense Forces, who will train them as soldiers to defend interstellar human colonies from the nasties of the universe.  Little is known about the CDF on Earth, but there is speculation that they are able to stop or possibly reverse the aging process– why else would they recruit a bunch of old farts to fight their battles?

So, in the selfless pursuit of a longer life, many septuagenarians join CDF rather than face the inevitable on Earth.  There are a few caveats– once you join CDF and ship out, you are, for all legal purposes, dead to everyone on Earth.  You will never be able to return.  You have to serve for at least two years, possibly ten.  But at the end, you’ll get your own stake on one of the new colonies and be a hero.  For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the CDF isn’t too keen to share it’s new-found and hard-won technological advances with the Earth-bound.  We learn right away that Perry’s wife has been dead awhile and, though he has a son, they don’t seem particularly close.  So, like the young adults in Heinlein’s novel, Perry and about a thousand fellow seniors ship out to the great beyond.

The first part of the novel moves about like its inhabitants.  It reads like eavesdropping on retirement center conversations.  Except here, the spry gang of recruits spends a lot of time speculating on the many ways the CDF is going to make improvements to their decrepit bodies.  Just as it’s beginning to wear a bit thin, things pick up when we discover exactly what CDF has in store.  There’s no pleasant gene therapy or restoration of old bones and tissues.  The oldsters have their minds transplanted into new and better bodies, each equipped with the latest advances in technology such as Smart Blood and a BrainPal, which is basically like having the most badass computer accessible in your head.  Scalzi’s dialogue is full of tired sarcasm.  So if you’re the type of reader who would get annoyed when Perry cleverly names his BrainPal “Asshole,” this is not going to be your kind of book.

From here on out, it’s basically the story of training recruits with spectacularly awesome bodies and tech and then fighting aliens of all sorts.  The only little bit of added depth is that because our protagonists are older and wiser, they understand they are fighting for humanity’s manifest destiny.  Or something like that.  I can’t say for sure because I started losing interest about halfway through.  The biggest problem for me was that I just wasn’t all that into John Perry.  It seems like Scalzi wants him to play as a latter-day Clint Eastwood character– a wise, world-weary, loner with a tough exterior and a heart of gold.  But I couldn’t buy in.  I get that he’s supposed to represent the every man going through a dynamic change just as he thought his life had run its course.  I just didn’t find him very compelling.

The best science fiction does one of two things.  The first kind introduces us to worlds and creatures and ideas that are completely new, yet exciting because they are plausible.  You know, the science-y part of science fiction.  The second kind forces us to examine what it means to be human in the present and what being a human could be like in the future.  Ideally, the absolute best sci-fi does both.  Old Man’s War falls more into the second camp because the ideas are not all that new.  But even what it has to say about being human isn’t all that refreshing or insightful.  But worst part for me was, by the end of the penultimate chapter, I knew exactly how it was going to end.  To my mind, the worst thing science fiction can be is predictable.

After my last two epic audiobook listens, this one was really short.  As much as I thought the writing was OK, I thought the performance by narrator William Durfis was sub par.  His biggest failing is that he attempts to give all the characters distinct voices, but they all sound the same.  When there are conversations taking place, this shortcoming is woefully evident.  Maybe I’m spoiled by excellent performances I’ve heard recently by readers Nick Podehl and MacLeod Andrews, but I can’t help but feel the whole affair would have been at least a smidge more compelling if the narrator were better.

I’d say because of its brevity and the fair to middling narration, you may be better off actually reading this one.

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Audiobook Review: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

As soon as I was finished listening to The Name of the Wind (reviewed here) I immediately started on the second installment of the trilogy-in-the-works by Patrick Rothfuss, Wise Man’s Fear.  It was a strange feeling starting up this second volume.  Though I had only finished the previous volume on the previous day, as soon as I heard Nick Podehl’s voice, I felt like I was back home after being gone a long time.  It was really bizarre to me, but I’ll attribute it to the truly marvelous job Podehl did on The Name of the Wind.  If anything, his performance is even better here.  More on that in a moment.

Wise Man’s Fear picks up exactly where Name of the Wind left off.  I suppose it’s obvious, but it bears saying that if you haven’t read (or heard) the first, you cannot pick up this one and expect to know what’s going on.  The first book lays a foundation and this second book builds upon that foundation carefully and with the sort of love that could only come from a writer who is deeply committed to his characters and story.  The first book was a remarkable debut.  This second proves it was no fluke.

Cover for the U.K. edition

If you want a primer on The Story So Far, there’s a nice little summation on the author’s website.  We pick up on the second day of Kvothe recounting his story to Chronicler, with Kvothe still at The University. But we don’t stay there for long.  One of the Masters suggests that, after the recent troubles he’s caused, it may best for Kvothe to take some time off.  To “chase the wind” as it were.  His friend Count Threpe has just the thing– a royal acquaintance in far-off Vintas is looking for a clever musician.  So Kvothe sets off and soon finds himself in the court of Maer Alveron.  Kvothe gets into trouble, saves the Maer’s life, and woos a woman for the Maer using his gifts as a silver-tongued songwriter.  Soon enough, the Maer sends him on a mission to hunt bandits who are waylaying the maer’s tax collectors.  It is on this trip we meet one of the more fascinating characters in the story, Tempi, an Adem mercenary who teaches Kvothe the ways of the mysterious Ademre philosophies, which sound like a mixture of Eastern philosophies centered around doing everything the right way.  Especially fighting.

After taking care of the bandits, Kvothe takes a detour into the Fae, a parallel universe of fairies and mythical creatures, many of whom appear human but are gifted in powerful and possibly demonic ways.  He spends time with Felurian, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world who just happens to drive all men to madness.  She schools our virgin hero in the ways of love and makes him a magical cloak woven of starlight and shadows.  Of course, he tricks his way out of her clutches, but not before running into the Cthaeh, an all-knowing oracle who takes the form of a lone, enormous tree.  It is apparently the most dangerous and dreaded entity in the Fae and all who speak to it are doomed to a life of making decisions that cause misery to everyone around.  So, whoops.

Though Kvothe believes he spent up to a year in the Fae, back in the real world, only three days have passed.  He meets up with his fellow bandit hunters and heads off to return the stolen money to Maer Alveron, but not before yet another detour.  This time to Ademre.  Apparently, it’s not Kosher for the mercenary Adem to teach their philosophy to outsiders, whom they all believe to be Barbarians.  So Tempi is called back to his school to face charges for breaking this sacred trust.  Kvothe accompanies him to Ademre in hopes of making things right for his friend.  Long story short, by the time he ends up back at the Maer’s castle, he’s learned a lot about love and fighting.

In the background throughout is Denna, Kvothe’s true love who appears and vanishes with the wind or the tides or whatever.  Their innocent and playful relationship hits a few snags and by the end of the book, Kvothe is unsure where things stand between them.  The book also ends as the second day draws to a close.  Things seem to have taken a turn toward the dark.  There is something mysterious and unsettling happening in the present day, but right now, it’s in the background, just bubbling under the surface.

Rothfuss spent nearly four years writing this follow-up, and it shows.  The writing is economical and the dialog is especially crisp.  There were tons of characters in the first novel and they are all back here, and even more are added to the cast.  A few are one-dimensional, but not annoyingly so.  They are mostly there to advance the story.  But as far as the audiobook goes, this is where narrator Podehl truly shines.

There are dozens upon dozes of characters and he somehow astoundingly manages to give unique voices to them all.  In fact, if I read the books, I worry I would read the characters in the voices and accents he’s given them.  I would likely never imagine Cealdish to sound vaguely Russian or Ademic sounding vaguely Scandinavian, but so be it.  It’s a genuinely helpful and subtle way to identify characters and add a layer of depth to the world Rothfuss has imagined.  Podehl is an excellent reader and I would not hesitate to listen to a book I wouldn’t likely choose if he were the narrator.

Wise Man’s Fear is a huge, sprawling, yet tightly wrapped package.  The book is over 1000 pages.  The audiobook is 43 hours.  There is a lot to like– it’s a superbly written adventure packed with emotion and it’s hard to stop listening to.  My complaints are minor.  There is the fact that Kvothe is a teenager and doing things teenagers wouldn’t normally be able to do.  But as this is fantasy, I can forgive that.  He does act like a teenager, and that can be annoying.  My biggest complaint, however, is that there is a lack of a true and worthy antagonist.  Yes, the Chandrian are out there, somewhere, lurking.  No doubt they’ll turn up in the finale and hopefully in a big and terrifying way.  But as of right now, it feels like Kvothe’s adversaries are unworthy.  That, however, does little to ruin the fun.

The second parts of trilogies are saddled with the burden of having no beginning and no end.  Because of this, they usually leave the reader or listener unsatisfied.  The best example of a second part of a trilogy is The Empire Strikes Back.  A lot happens, the characters grow more complex, and the story advances.  Because Rothfuss writes in the fantasy genre, quick and easy comparisons could be made to Lord of the Rings, which would have one comparing this book to The Two Towers.  On the whole, I’d rate Wise Man’s Fear as slightly more satisfying on its own, probably because it ends with our protagonist going to bed.  But if I have a hope for the final installment, it’s that it is more like Return of the King and nothing at all like Return of the Jedi.

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Audiobook Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I’m a recovering news junkie.  I went off the sauce cold turkey a couple of months ago.  The reasons are numerous and irrelevant to the topic at hand.  Suffice it to say I had long ago stopped listening to music in the car most of the time in favor of NPR.  But the current political climate seems hellbent on poisoning even that sacred well and I began tuning in less often.  It was a tough decision because I really like someone talking to me while I drive.  I find it soothing.  And in L.A. traffic, I’ll take all the soothing I can get.  This once diehard NPR geek began to do the unthinkable– listen to oldies stations.  I claim temporary insanity and beg forgiveness.

I’m no stranger to audiobooks.  I bought lots of books on tape back when cars were sold with cassette decks.  Later I bought books on CD. Both of these formats I bought like I bought most of my books, LPs and CDs– second hand.  Which is something you can’t do with MP3s.  So I’ve been a little reluctant to go down this new digital road.  But a few months ago, I got a membership at Audible.com.  An initial bad pick left me a bit cold and I didn’t download anything for a few months.  The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss had been on my list of books to buy, but I never ran across it second hand.  Now that I’ve listened to it, I can understand why.

Let me begin by saying I’m not a huge fantasy fiction fan.  With very few exceptions, magic, wizards and dragons just aren’t my thing.  I’m very much into science fiction, but I’ve overdosed on it lately.  I am, first and foremost, a fan of good writing.  Subject matter is a secondary concern if the story is well told.  The Name of the Wind is an excellent story and the writing is first rate.

Rothfuss spins a decadent yarn—a story within a story— about an innkeeper who is hiding from…someone or something. It’s unclear why he is hiding out, but he is discovered and coaxed into telling his tale, which makes up the meat of the story.  The world Rothfuss has created is marvelous.  It is imaginative and richly detailed, though familiar enough in a Renaissance Faire kind of way.  I usually have a distaste for Dickesian-sized casts of characters.  More often than not, too many characters tend to make messes and leave too many loose ends.  Rothfuss effortlessly brings each of his many, many characters to vivid life.  Though there are dozens of players, each has his or her own voice and does his or her part to advance the story.  It is a remarkable literary debut by any measure.

An overview of the plot would do more harm than good.  If you want a synopsis, there are more than a thousand on Amazon alone.  This is one of those books I would tell my friends, “It’s a great book. Read it.”  But I didn’t read it.

I suppose it is testament to the quality of the audiobook that sitting here writing about it two days later, I feel like I’ve read the book. Listening to a book is necessarily a completely different experience than reading a book.  However, a few things are the same.  As with a bad book, you don’t bother to finish listening to a bad audiobook.  If it’s OK, it goes in one ear and out the other in much the same way an OK book is immediately forgettable.  A good audiobook sticks with you but fades from memory and becomes like a song you know you know but only remember a fragment of.  A great audiobook, however, is absorbed.  Like a great book or great album, it is an emotional experience and you feel invested.  The Name of the Wind is a great audiobook.

It’s difficult to put a number on the degree to which a narrator’s voice can have an effect on whether an audiobook is good or not.  I do know that a bad narrator can ruin a book.  That first audiobook I mentioned earlier that turned me off?  It was the narrator.  I couldn’t get past the voice.  About 30 seconds after hitting play and hearing Nick Podehl’s voice, I was skeptical.  Within five minutes, I was warming up to it.  Within the first hour, I was sold.  His narration is easy on the ear throughout and he does an excellent job giving voice to the many characters.  I came to look forward to him reading to me and was sad when the story came to an end.

The Name of the Wind is the first book in a trilogy and, if I had one complaint, it would be that it ends like the first piece of a trilogy.  Thankfully, I’m a little late to the game on Rothfuss and the second part, The Wise Man’s Fear, is already out.  I downloaded it yesterday and was giddy as a schoolgirl when I heard Podehl’s now-familiar voice pick up where we left off.

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