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Didn't read volumes 1 & 2.  Not planning in it, since 3 was terrible.

But terrible in an entertaining, schlocky way sometimes.

So a lone American was fighting a horde of Nazi vampires while singing the national anthem.  He jumps up on a tank and runs out of ammunition (or has his gun jam?  I forget.)

The lead VampNazi opens the tank turret to gloat.

"That's where you are wrong, American.  After the twilight's last gleaming, there is only darkness."

The American opens his hand to reveal a grenade, pin already pulled.  "Not before the bombs bursting, asshole."

No further comment.

matt_doyle: (Default)
I have less to say about this one than I thought.  Much better than any other Star Wars novel in years, but still set against the backdrop of all kinds of editorially mandates events and changes in the universe I deplore.  It was a lot of fun to see Wraith Squadron back in action; but more than anything it makes me want fix-it fanfic and more novels set pre-NJO, in an era I actually care about.
matt_doyle: (Default)
The last ghul hunter in the city of Dhamsawaat is an old man with no proper apprentice.  Now, with his motivation flagging, he must face a greater challenge than any in his long career, with only himself, an impatient shapeshifter, a moralizing dervish with no finesse, and two old friends he must drag from the safety of retirement.  Even then, if no-one will believe him about the danger, he may have to turn against his own city to save it.

This was a brilliant book.  A setting and tone that could have come out of the Arabian Nights, flavorful dialogue that will be familiar to anyone who's read fantasy in an Arab-esque setting before... but treated matter-of-factly, not exoticized.  The characters were complex, troubled people, making their choices interesting and not perfectly predictable.  The ghuls were well-imagined, although I could wish we saw more varieties. 

Only a few small criticisms.

First, the climax was too quick.  We saw everyone struggle on the way to the final battle, and everyone put in danger during it, but they each faced the final dangers, persevered, triumphed.  It felt formulaic, and once you understood the formula you lost the sense of risk that was present earlier on.

Second, while the villains were delightfully, chilly evil, and the scenes of torture intercut throughout the book built to the climax... seeing the torture itself, as intimately as we did, and repeatedly, was... a little less necessary.

Third, I really felt like a lot more could have been made of the dervish's moral conflict.  It was really good, an actual thorny ethical problem, made worse by the other characters making light of it... and it's pushed past unresolved buy the urgency of the climax, rather than being made pivotal to the action, which would have helped incredibly with problem number one.

Still, it was a great, swashbuckling adventure, a world that feels lived in and yet unfamiliar to readers of traditional American fantasy novels, and compelling characters whose problems cannot be solved by the mechanical action of the plot, but only by facing them and sacrificing something as they set their priorities in order.

Looking forward to the sequel.  Bravo, Mr. Ahmed.

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Recently read two new installments in franchises I have followed after they well and truly jumped the shark.  ((ETA: As it turns out I'm only going to talk about one of them in this post.  Got carried away.  Oops.))

First was Laurell K Hamilton's Kiss The Dead, the latest Anita Blake book.  Vague spoilers for earlier books follow. 

I've been reading Anita Blake Books since Blue Moon came out in 1998.  These are the books that jumpstarted paranormal romance novels and took a new noir detective spin on urban fantasy.  And the first nine-and-a-half books are dynamite (book 10, Narcissus In Chains), is actually quite good... but it's also where Anita starts getting magic sex powers, which is what turns the series into shameless porn.

Now, don't get me wrong, I have no issue with shameless porn... when LKH's other series, which started out as porn, began developing plot I was equally disappointed.  I actually stopped reading them.  But the sex magic in the Anita books takes center stage and obliterates cool noir plots one after the other.  In some books, there are more pages with sex than without.

  Cerulean Sins, book 11, had about half a good book in it.  Incubus Dreams has no such virtues.  Micah is a great character study, making a boring character more interesting... pity that nothing in it is ever followed up on in subsequent books, and that the novel's own B-plot is so weak.  Danse Macabre has interesting politics, but as usual these are buried by sex.  The Harlequin is a throwback to earlier Anita Blake -- intrigue and violence and tough ethical choices along with monstrous power plays -- I sort of like to pretend it comes right after Cerulean Sins.  Blood Noir is the worst book in the series -- not just centered wholly on sex, but sex with characters we largely do not know or care about.  And the alleged A-plot, which could have been at least as intriguing as Micah's character study, is given short shrift, and feels unresolved.  Skin Trade has far too much sex but a decent, intriguing A-plot, sort of Obsidian Butterfly 2.  Flirt is terrible.  Bullet is terrible.  Hit List is... sort of okay?

Anyway, Kiss The Dead, despite its nonsensical title, is easily the best book since The Harlequin.  One of two books in the second half of the series I have unreservedly good feelings about.  In forty-something chapters, only seven chapters contain sex.  Only three sex scenes!  I was very excited.  New revelations about monstrous politics, a complex, multi-stage police case, actual progress on some fronts in Anita's evolving personal life... good times!  If you've still been reading the series, or if you gave up after the first half, this would not be a bad place to come back in.

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Megan just picked up a secondhand paperback, and Bujold is one of my favorite authors, so I immediately gave it a try.  Imaginative, but maybe a little rushed, with a strong sense of place and likeable characters; but it's lacking the deftness of later Bujold and the romance angle feels artificial and is the most rushed of several overly hurried elements.

Recommended for fun light reading, though.  And checking out the notes on research at the back of the book was also pretty cool, in that the disparate elements of the story can almost all be concisely and accurately sourced -- proof that derivative fiction is not necessarily inferior to original.
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Reamde is a novel about MMOs, the Russian mob, terrorists, and... yeah, I'm not really sure.  While, like most Stephenson, it's a romp through a weird, highly researched environment, full of heroes who are the perfect wish fulfillment of competence porn, it really fell down for me.  Many of the most interesting worldbuilding details related to the MMO plot became an unfired Chekhov's Gun.  In fact, the entire novel seemed to derail halfway through, when Stephenson introduced a whole new cast of characters and plot elements, overwriting what felt like the natural course of the novel (which seemed like a parallel to Cory Doctorow's For The Win).  It seems to me like Stephenson got writer's block, then solved it by application of Chandlerian axiom.  When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.

Only in this case, he had the man with the gun go through the wrong door, introducing a non sequitur romp that would have been a great hundred-page tangent, but fell apart as an un-telegraphed Act II of the novel.

That said.  I loved the characters, I loved the worldbuilding, I loved the bits where Stephenson was sniping at himself.  I'm a sucker for competence porn where enemies are drawn together by the realization that they're the only two rational professionals in a war of insane amateurs.

It was an enjoyable, schlocky read; and it had the typical Stephensonian pulling-out-the-stops fireworks finale ending, but otherwise it felt like a book by a different man.  Or two half-books by the same man, awkwardly welded together with Frankensteinian optimism.

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Timothy Zahn was once the best Star Wars author in the business.  However, a fixation with his own original characters lead to increasingly self-involved books divorced from the Star Wars universe.  Allegiance, the book set directly before this one, broke that trend by grounding a story back in the early days of the Rebellion, between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.  It was a welcome return to his original strengths: tightly woven plotting, solid character voice, and a sense of scne and genre firmly grounded in the pulp setting of Star Wars.

Choices of One makes three mistakes.  It centers around the original characters from the last book more than the traditional heroes of Star Wars.  It brings back a fixation with Zahn's darling Thrawn (a brilliant character growing stale through overexposure) and the Unknown Regions.  And it attempts, very heavy-handedly, to make its title central to its theme, through hammy exposition involving an old quote.  Oooooh leaders are important to large groups of people.  How profound.  Seriously, just bring back the pulp.

For all of that, the plotting is still tight, although it relies too much on one spoilery gimmick which it foregrounds enough to play out the suspense well before the climax.  The character voices are excellent -- although there are too many of them, and we don't have reason to care about all of them.  There is one subtextually gay stormtrooper couple I'm very fond of, but the focus is too scattered to let these minor characters evolve and keep us caring as much as Zahn does.  The feel of the adventure is still spot-on.  It's very up and down, as a whole.  Can't quite decide what kind of book it wants to be.  An enjoyable read, but mostly only recommended for completionists, or people who like Zahn enough to look past his faults more than I can.

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Fifth book in the Parasol Protectorate, a serious which has been frivolous and funny with occasional forays into serious interpersonal drama (the supernatural threats rarely feel threatening to life and limb, but they're deadly to relationships).

This one, sadly, was still a total bore to me 100 pages in, so I gave up and returned it to the library.  I'm curious to know if anyone else reading this series had the same reaction; and if not, do you think it would be worth it for me to go back and soldier on?

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Fantastic nonfiction about Roald Dahl and his role in British Intelligence in WWII, helping to manipulate the US into a deeper involvement in Europe.  From planting evidence on Nazi spies to seducing Congresswomen, I've read duller James Bond novels.

Thanks to [ profile] rthstewart for writing the amazing fic which clued me in to the existence of this book and the exploits contained within. 

If you;'re interested in spies, politics, history, WW2 in fiction or non-, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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So, almost a month ago now, I read the Lando Calrissian trilogy by L. Neil Smith, and because it was radio-serial pulp schlock psychedelia, I found it to be pretty much perfect, in the same vein as the original movies, if not as much the later EU.  Lando is a free-wheeling gambler who hates guns because he finds that people who use them forget about other methods of problem-solving.  Only, I think, once in these books does he deliberately resort to personal violence as part of a deliberate plan.  He's gentlemanly, much put-upon, conflict-avoidant, and cunning.

Great space opera.

Now, the villains were overdramatic, needlessly complex, and undercompetent.  The first book brought him in on a weak pretext.  The second book was contrived.  The third book felt like it started in the middle.  Whatever, man:  this is the kind of thing that pulp stories are made of.  They were brilliant and swashbuckling.

And Lando's complete inability to competently operate a spaceship without assistance, combined with a lack of understanding about import/export business, was very endearing.  Gambling and conning he understands, psychology he understands, technology?  Not so much.  Guess he has some things to learn about business before he becomes Baron-Administrator of Cloud City.

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Vividly atmospheric; nostalgic but not blind to the problems of the fifties and sixties; with characters who you feel deeply invested in, personal goals, detailed research, and the usual King shout-outs to other corners of his work.  Shows all the expected hallmarks of  Really Late King, in accordance with my Geological Epochs of Stephen King classification system.

As with other Really Late King, too much violence against women as a motivator for male characters.  And while the ending was well-crafted, it seemed to me at odds with the themes of the book, a weak explanation for earlier mysteries, and quite simply not what I was in the mood for.

The scene in which our time-travelling hero teaches a couple of the kids from IT to Lindy Hop, however, is a thing of beauty and a delight in every way.

What does everyone else think?

matt_doyle: (Default)
I wasn't wildly enthusiastic for the first thirty or so pages of this book, but the moment the deuteragonist was introduced, my interest levels skyrocketed.  This book is really fun explanation of New York from a whimsical faerie perspective, with a strong, if caricaturish, set of background characters who really felt magical, and really inhabited their setting.  The places had meaning, and everyone was where they were for a tangible reason.

That said, some of the depictions of "fairy fits" could be seen as exoticizing autism as a Magical Other Power -- but the word autism was never used in the text, so the similarity could have been deliberate without meaning to make the audience believe autism was the condition in question.

The questing portions of the story, too, felt a little too rushed and a little too easy -- not sure what age group this book is intended for, but unless it's ... oh, no, it does say "younger readers."  Is there a specific meaning to that, implying a younger audience than YA?  I thought this was YA, and it felt a little wrong for that -- intended for an elementary or middle-grade audience, it's significantly more delightful.  Doesn't talk down to the audience, but it's paced for a shorter attention span.

In any case, it was quite enjoyable, and upon learning there was a sequel, five minutes ago, I grinned and immediately began plotting to acquire it.  So despite my criticisms above, I should emphasize:  this is a really imaginative and enjoyable read.
matt_doyle: (exuberance)
So yesterday I went over to the BAen website and bought the advance reader copy e-book of Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold.

It's frivolous, paced less evenly, surprisingly insightful in ways both expected and unexpected, and it showcases Ivan brilliantly.  It's hard to say much more without spoilers, but all the characters are delightfully themselves, and the tone (frivolous and unevenly paced) is perfectly suited to the protagonist.  There are two or three twists to the story, none of which I saw telegraphed more than moments in advance, a whole host of new faces, and what may or may not be the plot lead-in to an unwritten Miles novel squarely in the middle of the book.

There's a sort of universal structure problem in the treatment of one character -- who is respected by the narrative, but who is, in a meta sense, put in a position that annoys many fans, but as with anything spoilery, I'll keep the details to my comment threads.

Reading it on a Kindle was less problematic than expected.

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You may notice this is not one of the books I was supposed to be backtracking to review, and you would be right.  I just read it yesterday.

Written in the 80s, I believe, and set in the same universe as the Miles Vorkosigan books, Falling Free feels like a much older-school sci-fi adventure, in which a scientist learns to make better moral choices.  The romance is understated to the point of implausibility, but the psychology and perspective of all characters, sympathetic and not, are beautifully balanced; the plot never slows down once it picks up speed, and while it feels as though it ends "early," it was a good place for a conclusion.  I just like a more drawn-out denouement (and yet, I never write them that way).

A rollicking good time.  Highly recommended.

matt_doyle: (dark smirking me)
 Delaying my next book review for either tomorrow or, well, later today at any rate.

Today I finished watching the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and I thought it deserved a little discussion.  Advance warning:  the comments will have spoilers, as I really really want to chat about all the twists and turns with people.

Anyway, Madoka is a show that combines the magical girl genre with... existentialist horror.  The foundational concept appears to have been someone asking themself the question "Who the Hell would make young teenaged girls fight battles against evil, and why?"

The answers are grim, shocking, heartbreaking, and sold with an intense and compelling narrative over a relatively brief twelve episode run.  You can find the show free to watch online, and if you have four hours to kill, I'd recommend it.

It became only the fifth movie or TV show I have ever cried at.  And then it broke a record and became the sixth I ever cried at, too.  The tenth and twelfth episodes were some of the most finely crafted and heartwrenching things I have ever seen, and the fact that I flat-out wept is just about the highest recommendation I could possibly give this show.

So.  Fellow viewers, let's take to the comment threads and chat about it.
matt_doyle: (Default)
 Still playing catch-up on my book tracking -- I actually read this one before I went to Virginia.  It's a little difficult to discuss the Temeraire series without spoilers, so I will just say it involved sea voyages, dragons, international politics with a corner of the world we've never seen before, and more social discourse about the morality of past societies than most books of its kind.  Not always handled deftly, but not overly forgiving.

This one was especially interesting because it tackled Inca-ruled South America, and I thought it did so thoughtfully and fairly respectfully.  The evolution of the society including the involvement of dragons and draconic psychology was an interesting perspective; nothing felt condescending or othering to me... it's interesting, though, that the people of different cultures are usually depicted insightfully, appropriately different based on culture but not stereotyped... but the dragons often reflect racial stereotypes in less nuanced and flattering ways.  Not always -- they are also individuals, and they don't think like humans -- but integrating them into the various cultures seems to have made them more archetypal, which makes them iconic, memorable, but sometimes problematic.  Has anybody else noticed this?

The other interesting thing about this book was that a character came out of the closet.  I thought it was extremely well handled.  The character is treated with respect, it's consistent with what we have seen of them before, and Laurence, as a period naval officer, is... hm.  Surprised, but not surprised that homosexuality is a thing; and while he has the appropriate moral code for a British gentleman of his day and therefore disapproves, he disapproves the Laurence way:  quietly, without overt judgement, while he sits back to think through the impact and implications

There are also several bouts of intercultural comedies of manners, which work well, and one sort-of-related bit where it begins to sink in to Laurence that one cannot always expect to judge a dragon by human standards, and that, even if you are friendly, standing between an angry dragon and its endangered rider is a bad idea.


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 This is, allegedly, book 4.5 in the Dark Tower series, an epic seven book fantasy series by King that took over thirty years to write, and which contained 4.5 good books before this one was released.  Unfortunately, it still only has 4.5 good books.  Not because this book isn't good!  Because it isn't really a part of the series.

First, brief justification -- the first four books in the Dark Tower series are among my favorite books.  The fifth book is somewhat good and also somewhat deeply weird, and moves the series in a disappointing direction -- the direction that lead to a short, forgettable sixth book and a devastatingly disappointing and terrible seventh book which nonsensically betrays the fundamental conceits of the series time and time again.  It's a wreck.

I'm very interested to hear your opinions on these books, Readers, whether assenting or dissenting.  Please comment with your own impressions.

Mild structural but not plot spoilers for The Wind In The Keyhole follow.

Anyway, The Wind In The Keyhole is like a matryoshka doll -- it's three stories, one inside another inside another.  There are three, and this is the tricky bit, because the first is Our Heroes from the Dark Tower books, pausing in their travels to wait out a storm.  While they wait, Roland, the Gunslinger, the ur-Eastwood Grey Morality Questing Knight figure, tells a story about his childhood. Within that story, his younger self tells someone else a story containing a storm like the one the Dark Tower Heroes are waiting out.

Yeah.  The whole connection to the Dark Tower series is nothing but a framing device.  This is as infuriating and pointless as it sounds.

Now, King has done this before -- half of the fourth book in the series was a story about Young Roland, taking place just before the Young Roland story in this book.  But there, things actually happened.  Character development and narrative motion occurred both in the past and the present.  In this book, by contrast, the present is nothing but an aside.

The Young Roland story is competent, but uninspiring.  It gives us more flesh on the worldbuilding, some detail on a few more characters, a quaint location; some dialect so ridiculously twee and quaint (though not, I note, implausible) that it broke my suspension of disbelief... it resonates with the themes of the series, and its actual string of events are workmanlike.  It's a mediocre tale, or a brilliant piece of fan-fiction that just happens to be written by the original author.  I would read it again but not pay to won it.

The innermost story, almost a fairy-tale but set in the same world as the Dark Tower series is much better. It may, perhaps, be set in the world of Stephen King's dark fantasy for children The Eyes of the Dragon, a fantastic book which is... how do I put it?  It's on the same planet as the Dark Tower stories, within the same universe, but tone and genre make it feel different.  Same here.  It's a dark, atmospheric, cynical and hopeful bildungsroman, with some interesting twists, some odd bits of Fail that will be familiar to habitual King readers and are no more or less egregious, and two or three background characters which are fascinating, vivid, compelling, and worth the price of admission for the entire novel, at least for me.  My only complaint (apart from the Fail) was Chekhov's Dragon, which was placed clearly upon the mantlepiece in the first act but failed to breathe fire in the third.

Oh Steve.  You're so very hit and miss as an author.  But I keep reading, because every now and then you hit one out of the park.

matt_doyle: (Default)
So I have now read the source material the infamous musical comes from (not to mention a crapton of other adaptations).  And perhaps it is true that haters, in point of fact, must hate; but the musical is much better at presenting a coherent handling of narrative than this book.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it.  The novel feels almost episodic, and despite its length, and its many tangents, it seems almost rushed in places, whereas the musical develops at a much smoother pace.  You know where the beats will be.

The book is curiously coy about the existence of the supernatural, whereas most adaptations seem to either embrace or dismiss it.  Some of this -- in fact, a lot of my frustrations -- are rooted in the fact that a century ago in France, they simply didn't play cricket by kosher rules as we do today.  Er, that is, the genres and tropes used were codified differently.  And I recognize that, and I appreciate the flavor this gives the story.  But I'm still reading it in 2012 (in fact, I read it in 2012 on a series of planes), so I think my tribulations are still valid.

The perspective is very wonky.  While much of the interactions still center around Christine, Raoul is our primary perspective character, meaning it's very nearly an epistolary novel,  in that someone is always relating the action someone else missed out on.  This is largely true even when Raoul is NOT the perspective character, and it has the interesting (and deliberately crafted) effect of the whole text boiling down to rumor and hearsay.  Not an unreliable narrator -- the author calling out the unreliability of all narration.  That's kinda nifty.

But it also means that poor Christine gets less agency than ever in a lot of ways, and that we are forced to see her story through the eyes of (and therefore, making the story more ABOUT) the men trying to rescue her.

Raoul is still boring.  Erik is still creepy.  The managers are more comedic than ever, which is nicely handled, and Madame Giry is still the coolest person we ever meet (unless Meg Giry is cooler?).  Let's move on.

The other element of the story that's totally missing from said infamous musical is a whole character who is kind of a little bit important:  The Persian.

First off, Orientalism Ho!  Dude never even gets a name.  He's mysterious in the first act and everyone finds him either sisnister or daffy.  There is a lot of inherent fail herein, however period-appropriate it may be.

That said, he seems to be our most reliable witness; he's the only person to know the Phantom's secrets in full detail, and when we finally get around to his perspective (he narrates THE WHOLE DAMN CLIMAX despite never having been given perspective before... but that's okay because poor Raopul would have been an awful narrator since he didn't know what the blithering balls was going on at that point and would have been hard-pressed to provide a cogent voiceover).... where was I?  Oh yes, when he narrates his tone is straightforward, and he is treated seriously as a human being and an individula whose own experiences are normal to him.  So that's cool.

Another problem is that early on in the book, the narrative, which is meant to be understood as a retrospective tell-all piece of reportage, informs us that a certain character will die and that it is a central event.  Every once in a while the narrator reminds us of this in an omniscient aside.  However, that character not only has very little stage time, meaning we don't really give a damn about them, but they die off-stage, too, in a way that is entirely incidental to the story going on.  It was very jarring to me just how unimportant, structurally speaking, that turned out to be.  But again, given the unreliable-narrative-reporter angel, the bare fact of this death would have made the papers as one of the most important headlines, so maybe it's justified?  I don't know.

Anyway.  A muddle, but a fun muddle providing insight into the craft of novel writing as it was practiced in Leroux's day.  I'm curious to hear the thoughts of anyone else who has read it.
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So.  Book tracking.  While on vacation, I read A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, which was... an enjoyable disappointment?  It was a fun read, about a nigh-immortal genetically engineered noble boy in a vast interstellar empire, in which a mystic priesthood grooms thousands upon thousands of candidates for their mastery of mechanical, biotechnological, and psionic tools, seeing who is fit to be chosen as Emperor.  Of course, the Princes scheme and try to kill one another constantly, because a new Emperor ascends once every twenty years.

So, our hero, a budding sociopath raised to great power and startling ignorance, must learn about his world in order to survive, face intrigue, betrayal, and military action, and at some point learn to be a human being.

It felt very much like Frank Roger Herbert Zelazny's Nine Princes of AmberDune.  And that's... not a good thing, especially not in a book this short.  The worldbuilding was imaginative if derivative, but it was very rushed, as was the episodic plot, because they had to cram this epic universe and bildungsroman into far too brief a space to support it.  Nix's preoccupation with the brilliant Roger Zelazny is very plain here, as it was in the end of his Keys to the Kingdom series, and it's just as mismatched to a YA audience.  Seeing the influences at work in the story, I was able to predict all the plot twists in the second half based on two details revealed in the first.

The book was fun, and I was interested, but I couldn't get invested, and I desperately wanted to give the world more legroom -- at least a trilogy, to handle the proportions of the story.

matt_doyle: (Default)
 Watched Tangled for the first time today.  

Loved it.  Rapunzel is multifaceted; adventuresome and sort of a domestic polymath genius and sweet, and Flynn Eugene Fitzherbert Rider is adorably vain rather than obnoxiously vain because he's so excited by things and genuinely interested in the world around him even if he doesn't want to admit it for the sake of toughguyness.

And the vlllain is bar none the most terrifying Disney movie villain of all time.  


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January 2014



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