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Book Review: “Between Us Girls,” by Sally John

Genre: Christian Inspirational, romance; contemporary fiction

Playlist…

Plot Summary: Jasmyn Albright was comfortable and contented with her life in small town Valley Oaks, Illinois.  Until a tornado completely destroyed her home on St. Patrick’s Day.  Devastated, she takes a solo trip to San Diego and immediately feels a strange sense of welcome and belonging.  The residents at the condo neighborhood of Casa de Vida are a mixed and sometimes kooky bunch but they come to find that they need Jasmyn as much she needs them.

My Book Review:  I was really looking forward to this book on my reading list because of the topic of friendship. I like stories of heroines who start over to find themselves and Jasmyn was one of those characters. She is not the only person who changes over the course of the book, as many characters exhibit growth. In that way, it was a great story of the power of friendship, community and belonging.

But it wasn’t the most amazing read ever. I think I was expecting the story itself to be more powerful. It just didn’t get to me down deep inside. I felt like there were too many “coincidences” to be believable all in one book.

There is some romance that springs up for a couple of the heroines, but I wouldn’t say romance was the starring genre. In fact, there was hardly any kissing so there was obviously no need for concern over content!

People won’t find this a preachy Christian book and they may like it that way. I don’t necessarily need the four spiritual laws spelled out in every book I read. However, when I read a “Christian story” I do look for characters that genuinely live out the Gospel of faith. The older motherly figure in the book, Liv, certainly lives out grace, mercy and love and is always in prayerful dialogue with the Lord. Jasmyn and her friend Sam do come to realize the love of God, but I hope they come to an even deeper personal knowledge of Jesus as their Savior.

There is a sequel that continues with the story of these and other characters from Casa de Vida, but the first book wasn’t enough for me to want read it. However, others may be looking for a quintessential beach read and find it in “Between Us Girls.”

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2020 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: “Love’s Awakening,” by Laura Frantz

Genre: Christian Inspirational, romance; historical fiction

Playlist…

Plot Summary: The story of the Ballantyne family continues with Silas and Eden’s youngest daughter Elinor.  The apple of her father’s eye, Ellie grows up knowing only love and privilege in the bustling city of Pittsburgh.  The Ballantynes are respected businesspeople, but also harbor fugitive slaves as they work with the Underground Railroad.  Danger lurks literally right next door as the rival Turlock clan head up a posse of bounty hunters to stamp out the acts of the abolitionists.  But Jack Turlock strikes Ellie as a more gentle soul, and his young sister looks up to her as a role model as she teaches Pittsburgh’s first finishing school.  Where will Jack’s loyalties lie when his father pressures him to break the law?

My Book Review: “Love’s Reckoning” (read my review here) was my favorite read from last year, so I was really looking forward to Laura Frantz’s next in the series!  Again, the book cover art is so vivid and gorgeous and it alone deserves 5 stars.  However, I had mixed feelings about LA…

The Ballantynes come across as being a very real family, real characters and it was delightful picking up to read about them again.  Their grace and faithfulness is wonderful—toward each other, their neighbors and even their enemies.  Ellie has grown up watching her parents love each other and wishes for the same kind of love for herself.  The trusting relationship Ellie had with her father was lovely; no doubt it helped her spot a good man when she saw one.  I also enjoyed reading about the prosperity Silas and Eden had established at the time this book takes place.  New Hope certainly sounds like a wonderful home in which to live and no wonder the escapees begged to live there at the risk of being recaptured!

He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.  (Proverbs 21:21)

LA has a very different feeling to it than LR.  Whereas #1 felt gritty, wintry and tragic, #2 felt full of spring lilacs and roses.  That’s not a bad thing, but for ¾’s of the book I wasn’t very engaged or interested.  It felt like a typical Christian romance and I felt disappointed.  But.  Then there was a plot twist which I am now beginning to really appreciate from this author, and the waterworks started up.  Just as I was reaching for my kleenex, there was another plot twist, and !

Unfortunately, the overall reading experience was not as good as the first, but I love how Frantz is able to leave you hanging at the end of her books (at least, the two I’ve read so far).  I am definitely going to be reading the last in the trilogy and can’t wait to read others by her.

I think older teens could enjoy this series as well.  The heroines are young women who grow in virtue and lovely character.  These are romances, and Frantz doesn’t deny sexual tension.  However, it is carefully worded (not titillating), nothing inappropriate happens between hero and heroine, and the curtain is drawn to keep the marriage bed sacred.

So if you are wanting something light and perfumed, I think you’re going to enjoy Love’s Awakening.  Note, I don’t recommend reading this as a standalone without reading LR first.

PS- I found this on Laura Frantz’s Pinterest and loved seeing how she envisioned the characters.  To be honest, Jack was hard for me to picture so this helps to “fill it in”, but at the same time it’s not even close to how I thought he might look.  Ansel on the other hand looks very much how I imagined!

I also recommend…

 

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2020 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: “The Marquis’ Secret,” by George Macdonald

Genre: historical fiction; Inspirational; classic

Playlist…

Plot Summary: A year has elapsed since the Lord of Lossie passed away and still Malcolm has not claimed his identity as rightful heir.  Lady Florimel has been spending her time in London with friends, but their bad influence is rubbing off on her and it has Malcolm worried. How can he best protect her while in her employ as groom?  Meanwhile, will the steward of the House of Lossie succeed in ruining the fisherfolk’s village?

My Book Review: I enjoyed reading the first in this series by George Macdonald, The Fisherman’s Lady (see book review here).  I loved the Gothic atmosphere set in Scotland– full of ghosts, superstition, crackling fires, and fresh landscapes.  I was looking forward to more of that.

This book had its strengths and weaknesses.  I appreciate short chapters, so that was a plus.  But I definitely did not find it on a par with TFL.  Probably the thing I missed most was the above mentioned atmosphere.  Half the book is set in London and the south of England.  While the rest does take place in Scotland, it just didn’t have the same gothic appeal.

However, the book did contain some of its own sweetness.

It takes a lot for me to label a book “preachy”.  I would love to write a post later on this topic if I ever get around to it!  I don’t fall into the same camp as a lot of folks who eschew spiritual conversations in books as though that made for a literary downfall.  However, when the characters themselves seek to turn every spare moment into an opportunity for a sermon… yes, I take issue with that just as I would if they were real life characters.  I admired Malcolm for his honest living before God and others, and he had intentions for good all along.  But one can easily turn a person away from the Gospel when they’re a one-note johnny.  There’s no room for the Holy Spirit to do His work.  This was an irksome element for me.

But as I said, I respected Malcolm and he was hard not to like.  I loved his looking at a situation straight on and shining God’s light on all around him.

“Malcolm was one of the few who understood the shelter of light, the protection to be gained by the open presentation of the truth.”

He lived out the Book of Proverbs in a refreshing way.  He believed that if you’re right with God and man, there’s no need to fear anything.  He is a novelty in the world around him, and to us living in our world today.  “But the noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.” (Isa. 32:8)   Because of this, I would recommend George Macdonald’s books especially for young people.  They’re entirely safe, wholesome stories that I would have enjoyed reading growing up.

An example of Malcolm’s good character qualities is his showing his sister some tough love.  SPOILER ALERT: He held out hope that he would not have to go to extremes to protect her but as she kept pushing him away, he eventually came to the decision that claiming his authority, dealing her an intervention and giving her an alternative was the best thing to do for her, even if she completely rejected his love.  On the flip side, Macdonald wraps everything up too quickly and neatly all in the same chapter, and Florimel does a complete 180 in about a second and a half which was not believable (unfortunately, one of the book’s weaknesses).  END OF SPOILER.

Another one of the book’s downsides is Macdonald frequently skipping over essential plot parts that seemed to bore him or that he forgot to write about so he went back and stuck it in quickly by saying, “I’ll just mention here that Malcolm did xyz…” End of Chapter.  Felt a bit lame and lazy to me.

There were quite a few good quotes out of this one, popping up in those spiritual conversations Malcolm has with Lady Florimel, Lady Clementina and other characters.  But my favorite thing about the story was the unsaid parable that wove itself throughout and culminated in a fairytale-like ending, which is maybe what Macdonald is best at.  I’ve been reading in the book of Isaiah lately for my devotions and came across this verse.  With what’s been going on in the news, I’ve been longing for Jesus to come back and put things right.  When every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and “the Lord Almighty will be exalted by His justice, and the holy God will show Himself holy by His righteousness.” (Isa. 5:16)  He will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line (Isa. 28:17).  “And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness.  The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it.  No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there.  But only the redeemed will walk there…  Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isa. 35)  Doesn’t that sound wonderful?  Even so, come Lord Jesus!

How does that apply to us living in today?  As God’s children, we are to be carriers of justice and beautiful holiness as well.  And that is just what Malcolm illustrates when he comes back to Portlossie.  He fellowships with even the humblest of his tenants; the faithful are rewarded; fairness is set in order; the wicked are castigated and the repentant are encouraged.  Although—a bone to pick here: SPOILER ALERT: As the “ruler” of Lossie, I don’t believe the punishment Malcolm meted out to Mrs. Catanach and Caley was a just example to other citizens of law and order; I believe he let them off too lightly.  I know the point was his trying to demonstrate mercy but the biblical illustration of the kingdom of heaven falls short here.  This is because of one of Macdonald’s fundamental beliefs (see below) END OF SPOILER.

As much as I enjoyed the scriptural truths played out in this fiction, there were some holes from Macdonald’s own faulty theology also present.  I could have written them down but honestly I don’t have time for that and don’t feel like being more of a watchdog here than what I am already.  So I’ll spare you the point by point analysis.  Besides, I can’t remember what they all were anyway.  🙂  I did find it interesting that Master Graham was ousted by the church for being ‘heretical’ but we are not told what his unorthodox teachings were.  George Macdonald didn’t believe in the concept of hell; he believed it was not in God’s nature.  Yet the justice of God (as already described, a major theme in The Marquis’ Secret) demands a dealing with unrepentant sin.  There is also quite an emphasis on being good, yet not exactly receiving Christ’s work on the cross for us.  The reason for this is because Macdonald also didn’t accept the orthodox view of Christ’s atonement for sin.  To him, salvation was only a process of evolution toward Christ-likeness.  I believe it is both and am disappointed Macdonald erred on such major points of doctrine.

However, one of the things Macdonald did well was teach the concept of “God as Father, and sought to encourage an intuitive response to God and Christ through quickening his readers’ spirits in their reading of the Bible and their perception of nature.”

This probably wasn’t George Macdonald’s best, but it did fully demonstrate his core beliefs.  And that won’t keep me from enjoying more of his books in the future.

A closing quote from the book:

“…in the kingdom of heaven to rule is to raise; a man’s rank is in his power to uplift.”

 

I also recommend…

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2020 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker,” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Genre: historical fiction; Inspirational; Civil War

Playlist…

Plot Summary: Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave woman living in 1860’s Washington DC, is hired by many of the city’s female elite for her superior dressmaking skills.  While serving many congressmen’s wives, as well as Varina Davis, Mrs. Keckley also receives an opportunity to sew for Mrs. Lincoln as her husband prepares to enter the White House.  For the duration of the Civil War, Elizabeth is employed by Mary Lincoln as her personal modiste and she witnesses history in the making first hand.  When tragedy strikes, what will become of the bond of friendship between these two very different women?

My Book Review: Jennifer Chiaverini is known for her fictional “quilt genre” books.  Those haven’t really piqued my interest, but I have a few of her other historical fiction on my TBR.  This is the first I’ve read by her, and I was impressed.  Although it felt a little slow-reading for me at times, I came away from it being glad I learned a lot about the people on whom this story is based.

Elizabeth Keckley was a real person who was born into slavery in 1818.  She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom at the age of 37 and eventually moved to the capitol and established a successful dressmaking business for herself.  This lady was so interesting to learn about.  I would relate more, but it would spoil the book.

We’ve heard about Antietam, Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, the fall of Richmond and John Wilkes Booth.  But this is told from a friend of the First Lady’s point of view which makes the story unique.  The most interesting part for me was the time related after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  I had no idea what happened to Mrs. Lincoln after the White House years.  It was fascinating, but if you’re hoping this story ends in a grand fashion with fireworks you would be wrong.  In some ways, it was heartbreaking.

In this story, we learn the kindness of a true friend in Keckley.  She was a fashionable, dignified, self-educated woman with common sense and whom Mrs. Lincoln needed and turned to in times of trouble.  Sometimes, Elizabeth could be too over-giving in a codependent sort of way.  Mary Lincoln wasn’t the easiest person to get along with.  But reading of Keckley’s love and loyalty was beautiful.

I was thinking about our modern era of social media.  How easily one’s text can be misconstrued and before you know it there is a facebook battle or twitter backlash.  We think our troubles are unique to our time, but in reading Mrs. Keckley’s story we find that is not true.  How does she handle the media outrage against her?  As a heroine– with perseverance, honesty, and right living despite not everything being made just this side of heaven.

If we think we have a terrible time of it in politics, it is maybe slightly comforting to learn that nothing new is under the sun.  Lincoln was not elected by the majority of the population, and many Republicans tried to run against him during his second presidential campaign.  Many “friends” deserted them and the news was full of criticism, slander and lies.  But the country made it through, and history remembers Abraham Lincoln as one of our greatest presidents.

I think Chiaverini was pretty methodical in her historical research.  I felt like the characters leapt off the page and it’s been fun to look up their photographs and feel like I know them.  If you are a history buff, I think you will appreciate this one.

PS- As you can tell from my review of Lincoln here, it is one of my favorites.  I was interested to know that Elizabeth puts in a cameo appearance as Mrs. Lincoln’s attendant in some key scenes!

The video below sums up her life in brief, but does contain spoilers:

I also recommend…

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2020 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: “The Fisherman’s Lady,” by George Macdonald

Genre: classic; mystery; Victorian; Gothic

Plot Summary: Malcolm MacPhail has lived all his life by the sea with his grandfather, waking early each morning to fire the village’s ritual canon, and earning his living by fishing.  He knows the water and all the people of his little town.  But something changes in his life when he is introduced to a new calling—that of serving the marquis as captain of his yacht.  He also encounters the marquis’ young and pretty daughter, Florimel.  Secrets surround around him…  His grandfather has a secret, the manor house holds a secret, and so does a neighboring noblewoman.  But who holds the truth, and what does the truth mean for young Malcolm?

My Book Review:  I think every Christian needs to try reading at least one George Macdonald story.  Whether one of his children’s books or one of his romance novels, a lot of theology gets packed into the story and characters and it does good for one’s soul.  I appreciated the old-fashioned sense and virtues found in the character of Malcolm.  I recommend the edited version by Michael Phillips if you cannot slog your way through archaic Scots dialect.

So… a Christian gothic romance?  Hmmm, interesting combination.  Christian, –or at least Inspirational genre,– yes.  Gothic, most certainly.  Very little romance.  Big plot twist.  Yes, I saw part of the twist coming, but not the half of it!!

I got some very good quotes and I definitely plan on finishing the sequel, and reading even more by Macdonald.  However, I would not say I agree with his all of his theology –even as respected as he is.  It is very surprising once you read about it.  Christian writers Michael Phillips and Madeleine L’Engle also subscribe to similar beliefs.  However, I would not say that they surface so much in the story for a person to recognize such a big difference between it and orthodox Christianity.

I mostly just loved the atmosphere.  The crackly, firelit, Scottish countryside; shadows, leaves, and forest; spooky attics.  It is such sensory fodder for a vivid imagination!  And, I had fun brushing up on my best Scottish accent.  🙂

Wanting to travel far away to another time and place while sitting in your armchair safe at home?  Grab a cozy blanket and this novel… I’m sure it will be just the thing for you!  (*Side note: please ignore the popular book cover that’s out there of a watercolor painting featuring boy and a very mature Florimel.  It makes it look so outdated and uninteresting.  Which is why I am not featuring it on my blog post as I usually do with my book reviews.)

 
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Posted by on November 17, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Random Books Post: To Be or Not to Be

I’m ready to get this newest stack out of the way so I can actually see the floor, so time for another random books post:

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2019 in Book Shopping

 

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Audio Theatre Central, please and thank-you!

If you enjoy audio dramas (especially well-made ones) and have not yet checked out the Audio Theatre Central podcast, you need to do so ASAP.  These guys have the latest news concerning all things audio drama.  Not only that, they are very knowledgeable about their subject matter and have insider information.  What I particularly appreciate is their continual clarion call to excellent standards within the industry.  And we’re talking FAMILY FRIENDLY stuff here, folks (what a relief)!  No gore, no filth– just good quality auditory imagination.  Yes, it exits.  *Make sure to check out Episode 124 in particular, where yours truly gets a shout out!  😉

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2019 in Audio/Radio Dramas

 

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Non-Fiction Books I’m Liking (Fall 2019)

Seated With Christ, by Heather Holleman~ Have you seen the new Kendrick movie, Overcomer?  The theme revolves around the question, ‘What or who is your identity?’  Most quickly answer with words like ‘mother’ or ‘health caregiver’.  Christians desire that the answer is in Jesus Christ, but we know that isn’t always how we live.  What prompted me to read this book at this time was the subtitle: Living Freely in a Culture of Comparison.  That spoke to me because I have always been at comparing myself with others (and falling short), and I was again struggling with it just recently.  I wasn’t prepared for closely this author would speak to my heart.  I’m not finished with it yet, but some of the chapters have so resonated that I came away praising God for the gift of helping and teaching me through it.  If you struggle with your obsessing over your appearance, your achievements, or fitting in, you will find something for your soul here. 

Uncle Sam’s Plantation, by Star Parker~ This is a little older publication, and some of the illustrations may be dated, but the concepts and essential wisdom in this conservative gem of a book is still classic.  Star Parker was born the year Rosa Parks kept her bus seat.  By the time she was seventeen she had been arrested for shoplifting, with acts of vandalism and armed robbery soon to follow.  Her young adult life was filled with drugs, live-in boyfriends, abortions, and welfare checks.  She knew how to play the system.  Praise be to God some Christians were able to have an influential conversation with her that led her to the Lord and freedom from sin.  She is now the president of the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education.  It was a long journey, but she is a living testimony today of the power of God.  However, this book is primarily about economics and the black community in particular.  The author knows what she is talking about because she has ‘been there’.  She knows the answer isn’t affirmative action programs or government welfare that kicks a poor man down while he struggles to get up.  What are better solutions?  I recommend the book to learn more.   

 

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Book Review: “The Cloister and the Hearth,” by Charles Reade

Genre: classic; romance; historical fiction 

Playlist…

Plot Summary: Gerard is the favorite son of Eli and Catherine of the village of Tergou in Holland during the latter period of the middle ages.  His family’s plans for his future have always been to go into the Catholic church, since his knowledge of history and languages and skills as an illuminator are great.  Indeed, he was completely content to follow along this path until he meets the fair Margaret Brandt, daughter of a physician.  A serious family row ensues, but there is no easy resolution to this tale.  For these are still medieval times, and both Gerard and Margaret will have long paths of sorrow and tribulation to tread before they are reunited by Providence.   

My Book Review: This is definitely one of the longest books I have tackled in a great while.  Numbering 700+ pages and being 102 chapters.  Ugh.  I dislike long tomes so!  But I know it is good to stretch myself out of my comfort zone every once in a while, and prove to myself that I can do hard things.  And I completed this lengthy undertaking, even if it did me take 3 months and bribing the librarian to renew it past the amount of times you’re allowed {for the record though, I do that often}.   

Memory escapes me as to why I ever thought I wanted to read it.  Perhaps I thought the forbidden romance between a priest and his lady love sounded intriguing, or maybe it was because the main character is an illuminator and I love that type of detailed art.  The important question to ask is: Was it worth it?  The answer is not a very simple one.  I came away feeling that if I had known how miserable a tale it would be, I would not have begun to read it in the first place.  I really didn’t get much from the story personally.  Every possible obstacle was put in the characters’ ways and the story dragged on and on.  It is quite an unfortunate tale of love and loss and waiting against hope, of death and despair and the subjugation of comfort and affection.  

However, after finishing the book, I felt I had a little better understanding of the different medieval civilizations of Europe—France, Germany, Italy, Holland.  I read strange and unusual vocabulary words.  And best of all I felt the satisfaction of finishing something hard.   

I had a hunch that the length, ebb and flow of the action pacing signaled that it had begun in serial form in the 1800’s, and upon doing some research I learned that is correct.  In which case, I think this very dramatic novel would make a good basis for a serialized audio drama.   

I was surprised to come to the end of the book and find that this story is a very “supposed” account of two people who actually lived.  This is a very Catholic story, but at the same time it takes place on the eve of the Reformation and Gerard has his own opinions on doctrinal issues.   In actuality, it is the author’s agenda that shows through in the end.  I particularly appreciated his making the case for community to help overcome one’s temptations, rather than isolation. 

One of Reade’s goals was to put flesh (or, a story) on the dusty bones of forgotten names in history, which is a very interesting idea.  How many times do we read our own genealogies, only to just let the names glaze us over and we fail to grasp that these were living, breathing human beings at one point just as we are?

“Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.  Of these obscure heroes, philosophers and martyrs, the greater part will never be known till that hour, when many that are great shall be small, and the small great; but of others the world’s knowledge may be said to sleep: their lives and characters lie hidden from nations in the annals that record them.  The general reader cannot feel them, they are presented so curtly and coldly: they are not like breathing stories appealing to his heart, but little historic hailstones striking him but to glance off his bosom: nor can he understand them; for epitomes are not narratives, as skeletons are not human figures.”

And after all of those chapters, descriptions, vocabulary &c. , I STILL could not ascertain whether Gerard and Margaret were ever legally married!!  Does anybody have a clue?

I also recommend…

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Anticipated Christian Fiction Reads, Fall 2019

I don’t know about you, but these new books coming this fall are looking pretty good to me!  You can view them and many more at the CBD catalog– and no, CBD does not stand for cannabis in this case.  That would be Christian Book Distributors!

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Posted by on September 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

 

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