August Reviews

Here are my reading reviews for August and my MayJune and July ones in case you missed them.

Yoga School Dropout – Lucy Edge (2010)

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The title of this book is absolutely hilarious and was basically what turned me onto it in the first place. I also quietly hoped it would be another Eat Pray Love experience, which I completely adored. It’s largely autobiographical and a travelogue following the story of English advertising executive Lucy Edge who abandons the world of advertising after a decade of hard (and what she considers to be fairly meaningless) work, in search of some deeper meaning to life. She decides to give up her job in advertising and travel through the ashrams and villages of India in search of some of the best yoga retreats and to master the art of yoga.

This book is useful if you are super keen on visiting India and taking up yoga seriously and want to know some of the lingo and what to expect. At the same time I almost felt like it was a little bit too technical and that the language went over my head at times, distrupting the flow of the book. That being said, there’s totally a glossary at the end of the book, giving you definitions for everything imaginable, as well as a range of useful contacts such the location of yoga centres, hotels and resorts, and list of other readings and references.

Also in a way I felt like the author was not really taking the experience seriously and the tone of the book was a bit too light. Half of the book provided some really in-depth knowledge about yoga and was a great travel reference. The other half was really shallow and consumerist and contradicted the whole yogic abandon of worldly pleasures and indulgences – searching for the coolest restaurant or nightclub, lusting over men, getting drunk, checking out other people’s Birkenstock’s or Prada wear. The back cover reads “She’d return a Yoga Goddess – a magnetic babe attracting strong and sweaty, yet emotionally vulnerable, men with her pretzel-like body and compassionate grace.” Like..come on.

Eat Pray Love got much more into the soul of the individual and you feel could sense the rebirth and renewal. I don’t know what Lucy Edge really came away with by the end of the story – but if I wanted to read it to get some knowledge about yoga then I’d definitely give it another crack.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1891)

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In my quest to read my super long list of selected ‘classics’, this novel was next in line and my first venture into the world of Oscar Wilde. Set in the Victorian era of England, it follows the story of protagonist Dorian Gray who is the subject of a portrait painted by the artist Basil Hallward, who is consumed by Dorian’s beauty. Knowing that his beauty and looks will fade with time, Dorian candidly ‘sells his soul’, ensuring that his looks remain timeless as the years go by. His portrait is the centrepiece of the plot and every twist and turn in the story sees the portrait illuminated again in the novel. There is a constant interplay between the actions taken by Dorian and the effect this has on the portrait.

Life is generally all well and good for Dorian. It isn’t until Dorian is accused of playing a role in the death of a young lady that his life takes a dramatic turn for the worse. He lives in terror and fear of what is to come next. Creepishly, the portrait of himelf has also changed, beginning to take on lines of cruelty and corruption which shocks Dorian. He is mortified and disgusted and locks up the portraits, never wanting to see it again. All the while, the town continues to gossip about him and seemingly becomes an outcast of society as he becomes more deranged. It isn’t until he tries to redress his failings that we truly see the ‘curse’ of the portrait, and are gripped by the final climax of the novel.

This novel was quite slow to start off with and I was wondering if I was actually going to push through (actually read another novel in between, which isn’t really a good sign). The language doesn’t help much either, being a bit ye ol’ English and pompous. But perservere! By the second half, the story picks up pace and the momentum really builds. The tone of the novel also changes dramatically. I felt a lot of eeriness, reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and drew some parallels between the protagonist’s of a nice, decent character whose actions lead him to be on the run and never able to redeem his character. Definite recommendation of mine – artistic, imaginative, and grips you right until the very last sentence.

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July Reviews

Read my reviews for June? Here are my one’s for July!

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The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkein (1937)

A classic novel if there ever was one. I was a bit hesitant to read The Hobbit initially, fearing that it would be a near mirror of the collectively sighed upon Lord of the Rings trilogy. But assumptions aside, this novel was fantastic. Such an easy to read, enjoyable book with all the twists and turns necessary in a fantasy quest.

The Hobbit follows the story of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who is tricked by the wizard Gandalf to act as the ‘burglar’ on an expedition alongside over a dozen dwarves who are on a journey to steal treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. Along their journey many a mythical creatures are encountered, such as trolls, goblins, giant spiders and the infamous Gollum. This is also the first encounter we get with “the ring” and only receive a mere glimpse into it, mainly its invisibility features, which Bilbo uses on his escape from the creature Gollum.

The language of the book is really easy to follow and the interactions between all the characters adds a nice light heartedness despite the weariness along the journey. You can definitely see the myriad of directions the plot can take following The Hobbit, mainly because of the sheer scale and detail of the world Tolkein has set up, and the number and variety of characters and creatures encountered. A little frustrating in the book, however, was Bilbo’s constant longing to return home with his fireplace, late morning starts, hearty breakfast and baths. Compared to many of the other characters, he was usually the main sort of complaint. But other than that, I guess I’m going to have to start on The Lord of the Rings after all. I will brace myself! It can’t be that different…really?

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain (1876)

The ultimate tale of boys and adventure. The story follows the mischief and nuisance making of young Thomas Sawyer who grows up along the Mississippi River. Whether he’s at school, home, church or generally out and about, Tom is always running amuck with his friends and acquaintances – trading possessions, unknowingly poisoning animals, playing pirates and Indians, breaking girls hearts, running away from home, pretending to fall in love, digging for buried treasure, using “meowing” as a secret code to sneak out at night, smoking and drinking, and even attending their own funeral. Early on in his adventures, Tom meets Huckleberry Finn, described as being the ultimate cool kid – not giving a damn and completely rebellious with no one of authority to report to. You get the feeling that Tom secretly wants to be just like Huck and share his nomadic coolness. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are also a direct sequel to this novel, published later on in 1884. Must get onto reading that one shortly.

The story has a lot of twists and turns and has the full spectrum of general mischief making to the extent that they are caught up in a wide-scale missing persons search and court proceedings. The language is mighty cute too. Set in the American South, phrases like “I’ll learn you” (I’ll teach you) or “I’ll lick you” (I’ll beat you up) are riff throughout the book and might take you a few goes to understand what’s going on. I would recommend definitely reading this book if you want to read an old charming classic that has stood the test of time and can definitely be reimagined in a contemporary space.

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Contest – Matthew Reilly (2000)

For the Read3r’z Re-Vu theme of Architecture for July, it took me a bit of a long, hard think of a cool, not so highly reviewed, book to review, which had something to do with architecture (does anyone have some good ideas!?) Anyway, this book popped into my mind! I picked up a second-hand copy of Matthew Reilly’s Contest at Elizabeth’s Bookshop, mainly because the author was gonna be in town doing a book signing. Sadly, I hadn’t actually read the book before the signing. Even sadder, I didn’t know a thing about Matthew Reilly – his genre, his style of writing, his audience…what he looked like! Australian and famous are good attributes to know…right? Reading the back cover, I recalled the book referring to a library and thus read the whole thing. Incidentally, the book is also Reilly’s first novel which he funded himself to get published.

After reading this book, wow, did I get a good understanding of his genre! Can I say in the outset that it is absolutely hilarious. So this library right, specifically New York library, is the main site for a ‘contest’ between the protagonist Dr. Stephen Swain and aliens from outer space – you read right – seven life forms from somewhere intergalactic battling in a ‘contest’ known as the Presidian, and fighting until one is left standing. Apparently this ‘contest’ has been held for many years and Dr. Swain by random happens to get caught up in it all with his young daughter. He’s guided through the quest and learns all the tips and tricks to use via his actual guide (and alien!) Selexin.

To be honest, if I had previously heard the plot of this book I would’ve been like nooooo way, this is not me. But tell you what, it was so enjoyable, so easy to read, fast paced and actually kept me engaged for the whole thing. The language is also a joy. I love Reilly’s constant use of italics in the novel for emphasis: “the Karanadon, crouched on one knee, slowly rising to its full height. Right behind Holly!” Or: “He listened in the silence. The silence.” Okay, so I don’t think this book is going to be winning any major literary prizes soon, but it’s a great quick read and if you do actually like that genre, go for it!

Interview with author Kate Forsyth

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To celebrate the launch of Aussie (and internationally bestselling!) author Kate Forsyth’s new book, Dancing On Knives, Read3r’z Re-Vu visited the signing of her book at Dymocks, George Street, Sydney in June. We then rubbed shoulders with the author in a private session to chat all about Dancing On Knives, her inspiration to become a writer, and the quirks and mysteries of the writing and publishing process. Kate is best known for her historical novel Bitter Greens, has written a plethora of children’s novels, loves the historical fantasy genre, and has also won five Aurealis awards.

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Writing fantasy…

In our interview with Kate she mentioned that it was by pure “luck” that she decided to start writing fantasy as it wasn’t really her first choice of genre, but always wanted to get into writing because she loved to read. She actually feels most true writing and reading historical fantasy or fiction, so much so that all her books have a fairy tale theme. She’s even recently completed a doctorate in fairy tale retellings from the University of Technology, Sydney. That being said, she acknowledged that it’s quite difficult to write historical work because you need to do a lot of fact checking (did toothpaste exist in the 1930’s???) and instead believes that contemporary fiction is the easiest to write because everything is familiar to everyone, and there’s a lot less research that needs to be done.

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Writer’s block…

Apparently Kate doesn’t get writer’s block(!), at least not in the conventional way. Sure, she has some days where she just doesn’t feel like writing, but always tries to “work through” the blockage and stick to a linear fashion when writing. To keep her going everyday, each morning she opens her files and reviews what she wrote the day before, making a checklist of what she still needs to research, discover or find out. Another strategy she has developed when she’s feeling stuck is to go out for a walk and clear her head, which usually does the trick!

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Tips for new writers…

Kate shared with us some great tips for those wanting to begin a career in creative writing:

  • Read a lot and write a lot – many people who want to be writers don’t actually write nearly enough
  • Have a dedicated time where you write every day or week and aim for 6 hours of writing per week
  • Keep a daily journal – it’s a process of automatic writing which is closest to your natural style and helps you develop more fluid and natural writing
  • Set a weekly word target which is challenging but achievable
  • Have courage and write what you want to write despite what might be hot on the market at the time (Fifty Shades of Grey = tacky mummy porn…Twilight = resurgence of the vampire genre…you get the idea! Just don’t)

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Quick Kate facts you didn’t know….

  • Kate doesn’t have just one favourite author – there are too many! Find a very comprehensive list of Kate’s favourite authors and books on her blog
  • She is currently writing a book about Nazi Germany from the first person perspective, so she’s reading hundreds of memoirs to get a better idea of ‘personal voice’
  • When she doesn’t like a book she just stops reading it! Too many books, so little time. Yep, we know the feeling!

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Thank you for sharing with us Kate!

June reviews

Disruption – Jessica Shirvington (2013)

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In a dystopian world, M-bands, a bracelet made mandatory to wear by Mercer Corporation, is described as the next step in the smartphone craze and has the power to control and shape lives. The novel’s protagonist, Maggie Stevens, is a young strong archetypal female character whose father has become lost, swept away by the consequences of this new technology. Throughout the story Maggie (‘Mags’) fights to get him back and ‘disrupt’ the system.

The story has a bit of a by-day-and-by-night feel with Maggie leading a life of going to school while also engaging in some seriously intense physical training to prepare her for ‘disruption’. Since the loss of her father, Maggie has felt conflicted – with a mother whom she rarely sees who is struggling to pay debts and taxes, and her own self – rejecting a world of femininity and embracing the ‘tomboy’ in her.

M-bands are the ‘next step’ in technology consuming human lives. At the centre of it however, are their capacity to determine ‘relationships’, ‘compatibility’ or the ‘perfect match’, which kind of makes me question how far we have really come, and if people genuinely share these kind of conversations so openly. Some other uses of the bands are described such as being able to use it to control vehicles, but its other functions are not heavily interrogated, nor are its interactions with other more common pieces of technology.

I also found it a bit unusual how the story tries to integrate ‘real life’ elements like purchasing a Vera Wang gown. For such a dystopian, futuristic context is this really commonplace or believable? Having said all that, the book strikes a good balance between drama, action and love interests and establishes a good and consistent pace from the outset. Maggie is likeable, although sometimes secretive and manipulative, but overall is an easy and enjoyable read by an Australian author.

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess (1962)

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A striking, mind puzzling and sometimes difficult to digest short dystopian novel about the rise of violent youth culture in England and juvenile delinquency. The main protagonist, Alex, is a teenager recounting his experiences of rebelling against family, society and every element of authority. Going around with his group of equally delinquent friends, Alex seems to enjoy the thrill he gets from any random attack – mostly burglaries and assaults on women, the elderly and random strangers. It isn’t until the point where he is accused of murder that he is locked up and attempts to be ‘reformed’ by state authorities, that he actually starts to question his own actions.

Whilst it is a short read, the language in the text is one of its most distinctive features. Burgess injects a range of Slavic words (rooka (hand), droog (friend), malenky (little)), which is stylistic more than anything. I believe the author was encouraging readers to sit there with a Russian dictionary to aid in interpretation. Lucky for my heritage, I actually understood most of the words so could skip that step comfortably! A lot of these words are used early on (but there aren’t too many all up) and then repeated throughout, so if you get the grasp of them early, the read should go smoother.

Apart from the odd words here and there, the writing style itself is a bit chop and change and will require some close reading and decoding. To me it read quite similar to Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, which uses a similarly deconstructed style of writing and is equally intense. This novel keeps you engaged, in a constant state of questioning about the arrogance and brashness of youth, and challenged in the energy it requires from the reader to decode and make meaning. How and why the novel came about in the first place (as told by the author in the first few pages of my Penguin copy) is similarly fascinating and adds another layer of intrigue and understanding when reading. I’ll leave that investigation up to you!

Lion, Witch and Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis (1950)

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As an introduction to this book, Lewis laments that by the time he has written and published the book, his goddaughter (to whom the book is dedicated) would have grown out of reading fairytales and would be thoroughly over it. Wrong, wrong, wrong Mr Lewis! I seriously enjoyed reading this classic and was not put off by its label as a ‘children’s book’, so much so that I think I read it in about 3 hours. This story (we all know the story by now right?) follows the timeless tale of four English children who have been evacuated from London during World War II to live in the house of an old professor in the countryside. Here, they enter the magical and mystical world of Narnia through the magical wardrobe in the house – a land full of mythical creatures, a witch, magnificent lion, drama, deception, heroism and victory.

I do love sometimes to ‘go back in time’ a bit and reminisce about a particular vintage movie that I grew up with and re-live it through its even more vintage novel form. The language and pace of the book is simple and easy enough for young children to understand, but, at the same time, pulls at the heartstrings and intellect of us older folk to keep us endlessly engaged. A real gem of the book is the visual illustrations (the author selected the illustrator whom he wanted for the book). These honestly bring to life the descriptions in the book and help to pitch at readers how Lewis wants to represent each character or scene. I don’t think that they ‘pigeon hole’ or ‘limit’ your own imagination, instead I feel that it brings to life the ethos of the book even more. Apparently there’s a bit of discrepancy in how many illustrations are included in each version/edition of the book, but my version was rich with them. A beautiful, light read filled with childhood memories.

May reviews and Sydney Bookstore Crawl

May reviews

Hate is Such a Strong Word – Sarah Ayoub (2013)

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A compelling read about the struggles of high school, family, growing up, belonging and cultural identity (and working at Big W!). The novel centres around the musings of young Sophie Kazzi who attends a Catholic, Lebanese high school in Sydney’s South-West. Sophie finds it difficult to fit in, in every way imaginable, and constantly feels burdened by the pressures of her overly protective Lebanese father, unsupportive school friends, and the nasties of social media. Entering into year 12, Sophie is determined to make this the year she sheds her uncoolness and unpopularity.

The arrival of Shehadie Goldsmith to her school, however, doesn’t make thinks much easier on her. With an Australian father and a Lebanese mother, Shehadie himself feels a bit conflicted and a target within the school. Things are brought back home too when Sophie’s family becomes the centre of a police investigation.

Besides touching on these important themes, the novel also draws on some contemporary Australian race relations issues and brings to the fore the role of women in a society debating questions about women’s role at work and in the home. I was lucky enough to meet the author at a book signing at Dymocks (George Street, Sydney) and she stayed afterwards to talk more about her book and our theme of Friendship at one of our Read3r’z Re-Vu sessions earlier this year. She mentioned that one of her favourite books growing up was Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi, and you can definitely see the inspiration she has drawn from that book. This is a great quick book to read over a couple of days.

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The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

I genuinely enjoyed this book. I walked into Baz Luhrmann’s adapted production of The Great Gatsby last year with very little idea of what it was all about (I think I just saw a movie poster in the lead up to it) and then picked up the book afterwards from my local library. The movie is a good representation of the book, and incorporated some of its great lines, so it was nice to follow the book with the visuals from the movie in mind. I personally liked the movie as well, despite some mixed reviews, but it definitely does show off the ‘Baz’ flair so be prepared for that!

The story centres around the narrative of protagonist Nick Carraway, a young graduate who works as a bond salesman in New York. Despite the story revolving around his travels and insights after he rents a cottage in the village of West Egg on Long Island, we are mainly intrigued by the mysterious and covert millionaire who lives right next door to him and who each weekend throws extravagant parties for the town. Set in 1922, the themes in the book are lavish – excess, grandeur, alcohol, the 20s! Think flapper style – glitter, diamantes and gloves.

Nick gets caught up in the drama of finding out who this mystery man is – his past life, his women, his future plans, and ends up doubting everything he has come to know in his short life. The book deals with a vast range of subjects – relationships, betrayal, death, revenge – a great read!

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Dracula – Bram Stoker (1897)

A real vintage one for you now! This novel basically spawned every subsequent vampire book, movie, comic, you name it. So love it or hate it, this is when the character of the vampire was really thrusted onto modern audiences and again is experiencing another resurgence ala Twilight, The Vampire Academy etc.

My main association with this story is from the film Nosferatu, a 1922 German Expressionist film closely following the 1897 story of Dracula. There are large parallels between both, with some differences between plot and characters. Much of the beginning of the novel is a virtual mirror of the film. The film really brings to life the ethos of the novel – the creepy campness of the Count, the horrific confusion and despair of the characters (all in captions) – and if I was reading Dracula back in the day I would’ve thought it was seriously cool and imaginative.

As a swift summary, the Count currently residing in Transylvania, is seeking to move to England with the help of young solictor Jonathan Harker. Jonathan visits him to go through all the paperwork and is encouraged to stay in the Count’s castle for much longer than hoped and anticipated. He knows something is up and this starts spreading everywhere the Count goes affecting everything. This book is achieveable. I found the beginning most interesting, with the middle beginning to taper.

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe (1719)

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Another seriously old novel. This time about a castaway whose thirst for voyaging the seas (and rejecting the world of studying law) leads the protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, to spend the next several decades washed up and confined to an island. The novel explores his triumphs and tragedies of hunting for food and building shelter with the experience of isolation with (almost) no human contact.

Let’s be honest, it’s a fairly dry read and took me a few weeks of struggle to get through. It also wouldn’t hurt if the book included some chapters or even paragraphs to break up the text. But for a 1719 novel we can assume audiences had more patience then. Ok so it’s not all that bad. The description is pretty good and documents a lot of the tasks and activities Crusoe undertook to survive but I would have also liked more inner dialogue from the protagonist: how did he truly feel? Is social contact imperative? Was it all too unbearable sometimes?

I remember studying this novel in high school and using it as a comparative text with the film Cast Away starring Tom Hanks, which translated across well. Again, a fairly enduring 2 hour+ long movie. As a classic novel, it’s pretty much a must read if you want to be methodically going through the old classics. But other than that, read if you’re into desert islands, tales of survival, slavery and don’t mind texty novels.

Sydney CBD ‘mini’ Bookstore Crawl

My first bookstore crawl! A super cool idea invented by my friend and colleague Annie who founded Read3r’z Re-Vu, a Sydney-based network of seriously passionate bookworms who meet up monthly to review books based on a chosen theme, host movie nights, hit up the latest book fairs and events, and hang out with local authors. Everyone is welcome no matter what literature you’re into – comics, manga, romance, young adult, biographies or sci-fi.

The club has held a few crawls over the years, some being full-day events whilst others are more intimate, low-key and less intensive days. For May we hit up the following stores, keeping it fairly close together in the city.

  • Basement Books
  • NTS Books Outlet
  • Elizabeth’s Bookshop
  • Kings Comics
  • Kinokuniya
  • Galaxy Bookshop
  • Abbey’s Bookshop
  • Dymocks Bookstore

First stop on the crawl, Basement Books located just outside Central Station. A treasure trove of serious book bargains (no joke, you can pick up books for 50 cents!). In addition to this, it has an impressive arts and crafts section, stationary, and gift bags and boxes. Because it is a ‘bargain’ store you’re bound to find some weird and whacky titles in there. I picked up a caffeine-happy recipe book Coffee: 100 everyday recipes for $4, which I’ll need to bake a recipe from very soon.

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Basement books

Next up, the NTS Books outlet in Market City. Not a ‘store’ as such but more of a pop-up yet permanent fixture located on Level 1. The collection is far smaller but important within a big shopping centre.

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NTS Books

Whilst we initially planned to hit up the bookstores in Surry Hills, we thought we’d leave it for the next crawl, and instead headed up to Pitt Street. Elizabeth’s Bookshop – a lovely store with second hand goodies and a $2 bargain cave!

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Gorgeous lamp at Elizabeth’s bookshop

Kings Comics – a land where geeks and nerds have died and gone to heaven. Comic books, costumes, figurines, instruments, books, films, collectors’ items, vintage arcade games…the list goes on and on.

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Kinokuniya – if Kino doesn’t have it, no one does. A seriously comprehensive collection of books if I’ve ever seen any and as their motto says ‘Real Bookstores Still Exist.’

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Galaxy Bookshop and Abbey’s Bookshop – second last stop on the crawl. This place offers you two bookshops at the one location – ooh la la!

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Dymocks – a well-loved Aussie favourite. Again if Dymocks doesn’t have it, who does??

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Locations: