Thursday, February 28, 2008

D. W. J., part 3

Archer's Goon
by Dianne Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

From the same fertile imagination that brought us The Time of the Ghost, The Ogre Downstairs, and Witch's Business comes this deliciously weird, madcap modern fantasy about a town run by a squabbling family of seven wizards. One "farms" power, another law enforcement, still another.crime; a third farms entertainment, a fourth sanitation, a fifth education, and so on. "Farm" here apparently means that each wizard has power over a particular area, and profits from it as well. It was an arrangement made long ago, only something has gone wrong.

Some of the siblings want to spread out and take over the world... but they find that they can't leave the city limits. This is because one member of the family - no one seems to know who - has connived against the others. It has something to do with a pudgy writer named Quentin Sykes, who for the past thirteen years has kept up a quarterly assignment of typing a two-thousand-word story and handing it over to a bank manager. Only no one, least of all Sykes, can say what his quarterly four pages of typewritten drivel is good for.

Then comes a day when one of Sykes' quarterly offerings goes astray. That day a seven-foot-tall, brawny, slightly daft Goon takes up residence in the Sykes home, filling the kitchen with his enormous legs, and claiming that Archer - the oldest of the wizard siblings-sent him to collect Mr. Sykes' quarterly two thousand. If that isn't enough, the other wizards who secretly run the town put in demands for two-thousand-word stories of their own. Not liking to be pushed around, and even less willing after he finds out that Archer wants to rule the world, Mr. Sykes puts his foot down.

So he and his family soon find out how inconvenient it can be when the seven wizards who run the town are upset with you. The Goon moves in to stay for an indefinite period. Public services and roads are disrupted. Police harrassment, criminal harrassment, musical harrassment, and a series of spectacular family rows ensue, as 13-year-old Howard and his younger sister, appropriately nicknamed Awful, try to solve the mystery of who has been taking their father's words and why.

I've gone about explaining this story backward. It really begins with Howard and Awful coming home to find the Goon in their kitchen, and unfolds irresistably from there. I just wanted to give you an idea of the clever, original idea behind this tale. Full of humor, family drama, romance, an intriguing mixture of magic and technology, a puzzling mystery, staggering surprises, and an ending that is equally astounding and hilarious, it also features a priceless character named Awful, who at one point says: "I'm going to be bad. I may scream. I feel it coming on."

Aunt Maria
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

I found this book at a super-sized, big-city bookstore several years ago...and didn’t buy it. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I’ve been kicking myself about it ever since. When I decided that I wanted to read Aunt Maria, I couldn’t find it anywhere. None of the bookstores I went to carried it. I ordered it repeatedly online, but the orders kept being cancelled because the supplier couldn’t find any copies of it. Even when I managed to lay hands on a used copy at an outlet bookstore, I was disappointed; 50 of the first 100 pages were missing.

I finally got a break – or maybe I finally made a break – when I ordered Aunt Maria through an online used-book broker. My copy arrived, fully intact, quite clean, and not even smelling of stale cigarette smoke. I was tickled. And my joy continued all the way through reading the book. While I wouldn’t quite say Diana Wynne Jones can do no wrong, she did right by this book.

Mig and her brother Chris have a terrible Aunt Maria. She is actually their father’s aunt by marriage, and now their father has gone and driven off a cliff so she really has no fair claim to them, but when Aunt Maria insists that they come to stay with her over the Easter holidays, Mig and Chris and their mother give in.

Aunt Maria is good at using guilt and shame to make people do things for her. Soon she has Mig’s mother serving her hand and foot, and with the aid of a bossy neighbor lady and a whole brood of “Mrs. Urs” (so many you can’t keep their names straight), she begins to sink her claws into Mig and Chris as well. They fight it, though, at first in small ways, and more and more as they begin to notice strange things going on in Aunt Maria’s town of Cranbury-on-Sea. Things like the orphanage full of clone-like children, and commuter train full of zombie-like husbands, and the car that looks just like the one Dad supposedly drove off a cliff.

The little signs and little rebellions escalate apace. Mig adopts a cat that looks eerily like the woman who used to wait on Aunt Maria, and befriends the ostracized, crippled old lady across the street. Chris communicates with a ghost that appears every night in his bedroom, and accepts a secret mission from the crippled old lady’s eccentric brother. They fight back against Aunt Maria’s increasing efforts to cast a magical net around them, until Chris gets himself turned into a wolf. With her mother completely under Aunt Maria’s spell, Mig finds herself alone, small, and vulnerable. Yet it is she who must put a stop to Aunt Maria’s wickedness.

Here is another of D.W.J.’s fine fantasy tales, full of wit and originality and a slightly off-color family many of us can identify with. It is one of those stories about how you can go to a place expecting a restful holiday and end up having the fight of a lifetime against a serious and powerful evil - without ever becoming quite as dark and hopeless as some of “those stories.” It is a story in which the unlikely monster is a helpless, teddy-bearlike old lady. It is a story you’ll want to stay up way past your bedtime to read, but it won’t leave you afraid to turn the light off when you’re done.

by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

The title is a play on words. People of a British persuasion use the word "dogsbody" as a term for an unregarded person who hangs around doing odd jobs and taking everyone's abuse. Sort of like the house-elves in Harry Potter, a character who does all the things no one else wants to do and doesn't get any credit for it.

The title is ironic because the story is about how Sirius, the personification of the Dog-Star, is condemned for a crime he didn't commit, and his sentence is to live a dog's life (literally) on Earth. Imprisoned in a dog's body, he is soon adopted by an unfortunate Irish girl named Kathleen who is, for want of a better word, a dogsbody to the family that has taken her in.

Sirius the dog is Kathleen's only solace. Her personal family drama comes to a climax at the same time as Sirius' search for the celestial weapon, fallen to earth, which alone can clear his name...or, if it falls into the wrong hands, could destroy the whole world. Befriended by various people, cats, dogs, and forces of nature, but pursued by enemies of terrific nastiness, Sirius also has to work out whether he wants to be Kathleen's faithful dog, or to save the world and restore himself to his cosmic sphere.

You know, there's simply no way to summarize this story without making it sound totally loopy and/or giving away the whole thing. Take my word for it, it's a beautiful story full of love, sorrow, intrigue, and spine-tingling suspense. Though it also has a bit of sci-fi strangeness to it, its charming observations of dog and cat behavior are worth it. It's simply a page-turner.

Though this book doesn't have any Greek letters in it, like The Ogre Downstairs, it does have a lot of imagination as it portrays a variety of characters, from animal to superhuman and everything in between. It also tells a very unusual kind of love story. And it has that very special kind of ending, rare and treasured, which is at the same time a conventionally happy ending and breathtakingly sad. You really have to read it to believe it.

Eight Days of Luke
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

I liked this book, but I can't recommend it quite as highly as DWJ's other books.

The main character is an orphaned boarding-school boy named David who, like Harry Potter, doesn't look forward to his school holidays. For he is forced to spend them with his very nasty Great-Aunt Dot, Great-Uncle Bernard, Cousin Ronald and Ronald's wife Astrid. You know right on the spot that he's going to have a hellish holiday because when he arrives home, by train and bus, no one even pretends to be glad to see him. In fact, they seem very put out, pretending that they didn't expect him for another week, and blaming him for spoiling their own vacation plans.

David isn't allowed to go where he pleases, he is sniped at for outgrowing his old clothes, every penny he costs these people is begrudged, everything he does or every mess he makes is turned against him by a hateful serving woman who cooks nearly inedible meals and whose only joy in life, seemingly, is getting David in trouble. It's another nearly ridiculous, but mostly sad portrait of a decent kid growing up without love.

Finally, pushed too far, David decides to put a curse on his family, but he has to improvise at that, and what he ends up doing in fact, is letting a mysteriouis boy named Luke out of some kind of prison. Luke appears to be about David's age, but there's more to him than meets the eye. Full of mischief, with a seemingly magical ability to control fire, and a disturbing lack of conscience though he is charming, Luke looks like the sort of friend who promises to get David in trouble. He's not the invisible friend type of friend - others can see him, and everyone likes him - but he's just not normal.

Then even stranger people start showing up, one day after another: the burly & frightening Mr. Chew who sharply questions David about Luke's whereabouts; the smooth and charming Mr. Wedding who challenges David first to try to keep him from finding Luke, then to prove Luke's innocence; a merry sandy-haired fellow who seems to think Luke stole something from him; and a couple named the Fry's who have everyone under their spell, but who apparently want to send Luke back to prison for at least another thousand years. And we're talking the sort of prison where giant snakes drip venom on you and you have to catch the venom in a bowl to keep from being poisoned. To keep Luke from being sent back there, David has only a couple of days to find an object someone has stolen - but he can only find it as long as he doesn't know what it was, or who really stole it.

For the portrait of a boy being misused by his worthless relatives, I thought Eight Days of Luke was a good story. The rest of the story, though adventurous and strange and full of mystery and danger, ended up being a very thin allegory - not even that - of Norse gods like Thor and Woden. Basically silly and pointless, from my point of view. The most entertaining parts are where the two story-lines intertwine and impinge off each other. The fact that Norse gods are involved does add an otherworldly aspect to the adventure - like a mythic quest strangely woven into a modern family drama. It's an idea that might have worked better, or maybe it will work for you; but for reasons I cannot quite pin down, I wasn't really satisfied.

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This is a strange, complex, emotionally rich novel of mystery, fantasy, and horror, with an off-kilter love story to boot.

It begins when Polly, at age 19, realizes that she has two different sets of memories for five of the last nine years. One set is ordinary, full of school and friend and family stuff. The other set is a weird adventure with a cellist named Thomas Lynn, with whom she shares a make-believe game of being a trainee hero and his assistant. Only certain rich, powerful, nasty people dog their steps, determined to keep them apart. And then, four years ago, the hidden memories stop, and Tom Lynn disappears from her life, as a result of a stupid, wrong thing that Polly did but can't remember.

Much of the book dwells on those five exciting, dangerous years of hidden memories, and how Polly's relationship with the older Tom develops from a man and a girl escaping together from a tiresome funeral, to a pair hounded by the watchful Mr. Leroy and his sullen son Seb, plagued by disaster, and amazed to see their make-believe stories coming true.

Meanwhile, the changes and risks of growing up swirl around Polly - her broken home, her changing friendships and interests, and (what might be quite useful to a ravenous reader like you) the names of all the books that impact her life. But things come to such a pass that Polly makes a terrible choice, and her strange and wonderful friend Thomas Lynn is erased from her life and memories.

Only now, after four years of hum-drum, as Polly is about to go away to college, she digs back into her memories and recovers it all. At first it seems mad, and she has no idea what it might mean. But then it comes to her. And she has just enough time - perhaps - if she is strong enough - to save the man she loves from becoming another victim in a nine-year cycle of evil, enslavement, and death.

With depth of characterization and a canvas full of down-to-earth details, Ms. Jones creates a marvelous growing-up novel that also brings a blend of ancient ballads, myths, and fairy tales to life. You can learn a lot from this book, and it keeps you guessing and turning pages right up to the end.

The Homeward Bounders
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

This 1981 book is a far-out fantasy tale, but also an achingly sad, lonely story. The hero is a boy named Jamie, who inadvertently discovers that mysterious beings called Them are playing the ultimate war game, using earth (or rather, all the different parallel worlds it has divided into, by the various crises of history) as their game board, and real people as their pawns. When They catch Jamie making this discovery, They "discard" him to the Boundaries, where he moves from world to world in hope of someday finding his way back home.

Once again it is a plot that would require a lot of explanation to give you a fair idea of it, and if I did so, I would give away too much. But what it finally comes to, is that Jamie and a number of other "wild cards" join forces in trying to turn the tables on Them. The result is scary, exciting, strange, and sad, with some nicely portrayed friendships and a bit of romance.

It's a pretty ingenious idea, too, and more than a little chilling. Imagine that you are a pawn in a cosmic game of Risk, and that your whole world is just a little bit unreal. Not a pleasant thing to think about, eh? Hollywood has been playing with concepts like this, lately. (See The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and The Matrix, for example.)

So Jamie goes homeward-bounding with Helen - a religious initiate with a "gift" that some call a "deformity;" Joris-the enthusiastically loyal slave of Konstam Khan, the demon hunter; Adam - a bit of a nerd who wants to sell his sister Vanessa for sixty thousand pounds; and a number of other characters from myth and legend, such as the crew of the Flying Dutchman, the fabled Wandering Jew, and an unnamed figure who could be described as vaguely Promethean.

The idea crossed my mind, as I read this book, that you could turn the plot of it into a really sick, but awesome, practical joke. You could totally screw someone's mind up, if you could find two or three good actors who could improvise pretty well & were totally committed to their material. It would be soooo cruel. But funny!

The Ogre Downstairs
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

This is a delightful tale, full of charm and laugh-out-loud humor. Plus, the theme of a "blended family" resonates with the personal experience of many of us.

The Brants and the McIntyres are living under one very British roof, since Mrs. Brant (a widow) married Mr. McIntyre (a divorced, single Dad). But after only a couple months, things aren't going too smoothly. Sally, the mother of Caspar, Johnny, and Gwinny, was swept off her feet by Jack, father of Douglas and Malcolm. Only the kids weren't swept off their feet, either by their new stepparents or by their new stepsiblings.

Forced to share a crowded house with surly older brother Douglas and sneering twerp Malcolm, the Brant kids start calling their stepfather "the Ogre" because he is apallingly sensitive to noise, messes, and other things that happen when kids are around. He isn't even used to having his own sons around, since they were at boarding school until the family's new living arrangements put that out of his price range.

For their part, Douglas and Malcolm don't find it any easier to live with their father. Even they eventually start calling him "the Ogre." But they don't find it easy to make friends with their new siblings or mother. Douglas doesn't like change, and Malcolm doesn't know how to make friends. Malcolm, as it turns out, is also very lonely at his new school, where even Casper and Johnny won't have anything to do with him.

Sally, the mother, tries and tries, but the feuding kids are an escalating nightmare, and their feud with the Ogre is even worse. The catalyst that really lights the fuse to this family timebomb is the identical chemistry sets Jack gives to both sets of children.

These aren't ordinary chemistry sets. They come from a shop that has something magical about it, and a shopkeeper with a slightly malicious sense of fun. What follows is a magical "arms race" between the boys' bedrooms on opposite sides of the hallway. Naturally, every magical potion the boys cook up causes hilarious disasters that infuriate the Ogre more and more.

You will split a gut laughing! The kids discover potions enabling them to fly, bring inanimate objects to life, turn invisible, switch bodies, shrink down to tiny size, and cause Hell's Angels bikers to sprout from the ground. The final surprise reminds one of Harry Potter.

And naturally, all these magical powers cause things to go terribly wrong. The Ogre flies into escalating fits of rage. And, ironically, the five kids bond together as a result. The final challenge is to learn to understand the Ogre, and for him to learn to try to understand them, in time to save his marriage to Sally and/or keep the kids from being farmed out to boarding schools all over the country.

It's delightful seeing how nearly this family totally explodes & how wonderfully it finally comes together, especially considering how interesting each of the characters is.

The imagery of the book is delightful. Picture a teenage boy swimming down the street, a couple of stories above the ground, wearing an anorak and flippers. Picture a bathtub overflowing and causing an avalanche of water on top of an important dinner party. Picture boys wrestling with live, lizard-like, overgrown candy bars, and a man attempting to smoke a pipe without realizing that it has come to life. And if you know your Greek alphabet, you'll get extra enjoyment from the bit with the Biker Gang, because the children don't understand what they're saying and guess that they're talking in Greek. If you read the letters carefully you can figure out most of what they're saying (hint, it's NOT Greek).

Power of Three
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 12+

Things come in threes in this book. Three Powers - the Old, Middle, and New. Three Peoples who live on the moor - the People of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth. Three children of the "sun people" chief Gest and his wise-woman wife Adara: by name, Ayna, Ceri, and Gair. And that's just for starters.

Though his brother and sister have powerful gifts, Gair believes he is completely ordinary. This fosters a solitary, thoughtful streak in his personality, a touch of melancholy, and a lack of understanding between him and his father. But Gair is actually extraordinary, in three ways in particular. I wouldn't dream of giving them away. But as one event follows another, Gair finds a kindred spirit among each of the other two Peoples- - making another circle of three.

I have to back up a little. I can't help it. This story is simply too rich and its weaving too sophisticated to break down into an easy summary. But imagine that there are three races that live on the same moor in mutual distrust and even, at times, violent enmity. There are Gair's people, who think of themselves as "people" but are known to the others as Lymen. There are Hafny's people, who also think of themselves as "people," but are known to the lymen as Dorig. And then there are the Giants, who also think of themselves as "people," and don't seem to know the other two exist. It may be a surprise, but not a big surprise, when you find out who the Giants are.

Each race has its own magic and its own way of life. Each seems to think it is the only civilized people with a right to live there. And all three are endangered by their own ignorance, pride, and distrust of the others.

The three Peoples can't seem to work things out and live together in peace. And this is sad, because all three of them live under a terrible threat. I'm not just talking about the plans to flood the moor and turn it into a reservoir. I'm talking about the golden collar, pulsating with an evil curse, that is poisoning the livelihood and relationships of all three peoples. And nothing short of the gifts of Gair and his brother and sister, and the chance of sworn enemies learning to work together, can end the curse and save the moor. Nothing, except, perhaps, an awful sacrifice.

I think you will enjoy this exciting, suspenseful story. It is filled with deep magic and a message of understanding and cooperation between cultures. It is also filled with the colorful details of strange and hidden ways of life, beautiful characters, and the sinister menace of a horseshoe-shaped piece of finely wrought gold. Evil comes in unexpected shapes, just as heroism comes in all kinds of packages. Enlarging to the mind, touching to the heart, this is a story to share.

Stopping for a Spell
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

Here are three light-hearted tales of magic from one of my favorite authors. Since each story consists of several chapters, they could be called “novellettes” - but the three of them together make a pretty slim book, so let’s just call them tales.

The first one is “Chair Person,” a cautionary tale about leaving the TV on in front of an empty chair, talking about burning a piece of furniture while in its presence, and letting bossy busybodies stage-manage your life. A bit of unplanned magic brings a crummy old armchair to life. Chair Person is a non-stop talker with a bottomless appetite and a mean streak. In just 24 hours he turns Simon and Marcia’s life upside down. The children race against time to reverse the spell that created Chair Person, before the chaotic magic destoys their family and their home.

The second tale is “The Four Grannies,” featuring a little boy named Erg who has a mother, a stepfather, a stepsister, and thereby four nightmarish grandmothers. Known by number rather than by name, Grannies One through Four become a real problem when they all show up at the same time to babysit Erg and Emily. All Erg wants to do is work on his invention, made of items found lying around the house and (wouldn’t you know it) a magic wand. Erg calls his invention a “prayer machine” even before he discovers that it actually does answer prayer... but not in a predictable way. While Erg tries to keep the Grannies busy long enough to finish his invention, really disturbing things start to happen – including the creation of the terrible Supergranny.

The book concludes with “Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?” Candida and her two brothers want nothing more than to get rid of Angus Flint, a really obnoxious, freeloading “friend of the family” who seems to have moved in for good. The creep pulls kids’ hair, insults their mother’s cooking, bosses everyone around, and practices yoga when anyone tries to talk to him seriously. His fatal mistake? Abusing the furniture. Beds, chairs, tables, and pianos will only take so much abuse before they get resentful. And trust me, you don’t want resentful furniture to suddenly awaken...

The stories in this book fulfill some of our basic fantasies. They show us ordinary people like ourselves, who have everday problems. We wish we could do something magical to make those problems go away. But of course we would realize, if we thought about it seriously, that once that kind of magic was turned loose, we would have a whole new set of problems, and then we would need to find a way to get rid of the magic. That’s what happens in this book. Diana Wynne Jones has the audacity, the creativity, and the sheer sense of fun to think our casual wishes through to their logical conclusion – and to turn them into hilarious, exciting, and weird stories like these.

A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

The heroine of this story is an eleven-year-old British girl from the year 1939, who, while being evacuated by train from the bombing of London, is kidnapped (gas mask and all) by a couple of boys from the timeless city of Time City.

Time City sits astride history, accepting students from all the "stable eras" and trying to keep the Unstable Eras (like ours) from getting too unstable. Now something is going wrong; something is causing history to go kerflooey all over the place; and the boys have overheard from their important Time City fathers that a girl named Vivian Smith has something to do with it. Which is why they've kidnapped Vivian and brought her home with them. They think she's the wife in the couple of city founders who are supposed to return and save the city as it comes to the end of another lap around history.

But Vivian is just a normal 1939 girl, who has no knowledge of Time City affairs, so the boys pretend she's their cousin Vivian Lee whose parents are observers stationed in the 20th century, and that she has been sent back to Time City for safety reasons while the century undergoes violent changes. Meanwhile they keep trying to catch whoever it is that is stealing the "polarities of time" that are hidden in special places throughout history and guarded by spectral guardians.

In the end it's not entirely clear whether the kids have been saving history or destroying it (though not on purpose), but they definitely end up playing a role in saving Time City. The ending of the story is surprisingly unlike the usual "heroes decorated by royalty in a ticker-tape parade" ending-they end up on trial! But what happens in between is so full of intrigue, suspense, surprise, and charm that I predict you would enjoy it anyway.

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 14+

In a strange, magical mystery that will keep you guessing (and on the edge of your seat) till the very end, the author of many of my favorite books introduces us to four sisters — Cart, Sally, Imogen, and Fenella — who live a life of acute neglect in the house adjacent to an English boys’ school. Their parents give all their time to the boys and none to the girls—nor any money, and how the girls must scrounge even for food and clothing is amazing.

But while the girls live in their pigsty of a house, bickering amongst themselves & inventing the worship of a pretend goddess named Monigan & befriending a few of the schoolboys on the sly, weird things are going on. For Monigan, it turns out, is real...and a wrong-headed boy, bent on doing mischief, and a rebellious girl, bent on getting attention for herself, set a horrible chain of events in motion...and through it all, the ghost of one of the sisters, thrown back from seven years in the future, tries to find out which of the sisters she is, and how she can change the past before Monigan claims the life she has been promised.

I was fascinated by the children, revolted by the adults, and moved by the ghost’s, er, soul-searching in this tale. But most of all, I was entertained by yet another unique fantasy world created by a master storyteller.

Occult content advisory: some very foolish children perform some sort-of-pagan rituals, mostly in play, and for the most part they suffer consequences illustrative of how dangerous it is to meddle with things one doesn’t understand. I wouldn’t be surpised, though, if some of you took issue with this book’s use of religious and irreligious rituals. Forewarned is forearmed.

Witch's Business
by Diana Wynne Jones
Recommended Age: 10+

In what seems to be Diana Wynne Jones' first novel, the trouble starts when Frank and his sister Jess have their allowance stopped for four months. What choice do they have, but to go into business for themselves? And the business they go into is the Revenge Business, or in the British tongue, "Own Back Ltd."

They don't end up making any money at it, but they get into lots of trouble. First the town bully hires them to get a "tooth for a tooth." Then two little girls hire Frank and Jess to do something about the local witch, Biddy Ironmonger, who has put the evil eye on one of the sisters. Then a boy from the "big house" demands help shaking off the same little girls, who have been persecuting him because his family took over their house when all their money and valuables "went."

Pretty soon things get even more tangled. The tooth ends up being used to put a curse on the wrong person. Nine boys sell themselves to evil, and will do anything to stop Frank and Jess and their new friends from finding the lost heirlooms that will restore a family's fallen fortunes. A "desprit" little boy hires Frank and Jess to free his older brothers who are part of the sold-to-evil gang. And between adults who are under Biddy's control, and the watchful eye of Biddy's cat, and other hazards of searching for lost treasure around a crumbling house while an evil witch is throwing curses around, the plot thickens and thickens.

Finally, when fifteen desprit (sic) kids take the battle to the witch's own turf, it's soup. A stew, really, of scary magic, fairy-tale whimsy, the high spirits of children, and a bit of Ms. Jones' trademark slipping-between-dimensions. Loaded with characters who become unlikely friends, and a witch who seems the likeliest enemy of all, Witch's Business will charm your socks off (in one sense of the word or another).

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