Category Archives: Reviews

Fling!

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Last October I attended an event of the San Francisco Chapter WNBA, Women’s National Book Association.  Member authors presented their lately published books, and I was captured by Lily Iona MacKenzie and her 2015 release, Fling! I ran right to the signing table after the presentations and bought a copy, although later I received an audio version, which I listened to on trains crossing Spain (no plain, no rain.) IMG_4204.JPGDelighted, I wiled away the hours lost in the scenery and MacKenzie’s imaginative and wacky story of mothers and daughters, fulfilling one’s dreams and the magic that comes when you live life to the edge and possibly over. I felt like I was on my own quest, living my Spanish vacation to its maximum, experiencing the magic of discovery and expansion that comes with travel to new places. Everything thrummed with excitement, including my book—Fling!  Life couldn’t have been better.

Several days later, the book finished, and watching the lights coming on from our balcony overlooking La Sagrada Familia, I ruminated on Fling!. IMG_4013Set between three generations of women and four countries, much of the story takes place in Mexico. I know Mexico well and thought about what I’d learned by visiting the “parent” country, Spain. The mysterious twisting cobbled streets of the medieval cities, the ubiquitous artistic expression, the grand churches, the tile work, the crowds promenading through tapas bars in the evenings, the sense of happy self-actualization of the Spaniards—the foundation of the Mexican culture. I even found the magical realism: on the strains of symphonic music wafting through Granada’s cathedral, the phantasms flitting in the gardens of Generalife, the rain-bowed light streaming through the glass of La Sagrada Familia, the voices of antiquity whispering from somber portraits in the Prado Museum, the sensual buildings of the Modernista, a cathedral in the middle of the Mesquita! IMG_4901Then it was November 9th and only the unreal remained. We’ve had almost a year lacking magic. I say it’s time to look away from the devastation of the environment and our rude and hateful world of racism, deportations, killing sprees, and the crumbling of our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s time to find life’s fountain of youth and wonder again. Fling! is full of it.

Unknown-3Like any compelling saga, the story is told in multiple points of view across a span of three lifetimes. It opens with Malcolm MacGregor’s story of how his granddaughter Bubbles, née Heather, “had danced right off one of his paintings, landing in the family potato patch. . . .” in  1906 on the Isle of Skye, where “unpredictable things happen.” Her hippie daughter, Feather, has also inherited the Scottish sensibility of unpredictability, which shows up as  “Manannán  Mac Lirs’s underworld” in her paintings.

Bubbles has convinced Feather to come home to Calgary, Canada from San Francisco to celebrate her 90th birthday, but she has another motive. Bubbles has received a notice from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left seventy years earlier, in the late 1920s. Heather had left her family to go to Mexico with a married man. Bubble wants Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial.

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The story of their odyssey is woven together with the stories of their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The two women travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then in Mexico over six months. In magical Mexico, Feather learns much about her mother. She hasn’t fully believed her mother’s story, but when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, she begins to understand the depth of her and her mother’s magic. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, helped by Indian villagers mistaking Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess and praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again, realizes she’s overlooked her own mother.

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Bubbles’ quest and a new man in her life has increased her zest for life. A life-long entrepreneur, she’s convinced she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral spring outside San Miguel de Allende and she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it. A natural risk taker and believing she’s immortal, Bubbles lives life to the fullest in every way. Feather learns from Bubbles’ youthful spirit that it’s never too late to realize your dreams. Both have found the fountain of youth and they know that they will see everyone again, “if not in the flesh, then their souls hovering as a hummingbird, or fluttering as a butterfly, or floating above the earth as clouds.”

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Mackenzie has created two strong characters who are hilarious and endearing. Bubbles is a zany gypsy who takes after her mother, the ashes left at the dead letter office. She’s tough and tender and wants to reconcile with both the mother who left her and the daughter she left. At 90, she’s finally come of age and found the love of a good man. Feather, née Heather, at 57 is a San Francisco artist who desperately wants to break free of the male dominated world. She loves her mother but can’t quite connect to her as Bubbles lives inside a bubble that Feather feels has never burst. Feather grew up in her mother’s shadow, “. . .a moon, orbiting a planet.” and has worked hard to become her own person. Pragmatic, fearful and a worrier, she’s not much of a risk taker except in her art. She longs to be in charge of her own life. For all Bubbles exuberance, Feather is equally reserved, although she’s got a sharp eye and makes funny observations.  She’s Bubbles’ touchstone and Bubbles is Feather’s catalyst to relax and enjoy life.

 

The story is told in both past and present tenses. Mackenzie’s skill in sliding in and out of tenses and in and out of voices is superb. Chapter headings clue readers into time periods and goddess images separate scenes. In the audio version I listened to in Spain, Anna Crow, the reader, modulated her voice sufficiently to follow the changes and determine the speaker. I had no problem keeping up with her reading.

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Mackenzie’s language is straightforward and sensory. Her descriptions are vivid and progress to surprising comparisons and existential observations throughout the book. For example, On the plane to Mexico City they encounter a storm: “Lighting rips open the night sky, ragged edges illuminating patches of earth below. She [Bubbles] tries to ignore the severe turbulence. It reminds her of riding horses on the farm. . . . She could be going along, enjoying the ride, when suddenly all hell would break loose. . . . But then, life is like that. Everything seems fine. Then suddenly, it isn’t.” It’s these observations that are the real charm of the book. It’s like living inside the characters’ minds. And of course, these characters think the wildest things!

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In part, the collision of their Celtic roots and lore with the rich blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous Mexican characteristics and culture they encounter in Mexico is what makes this all work. Of course, magic happens! The dead come to visit, old ladies are mistaken for long awaited goddesses, and people change while finding their dreams. Ultimately, it’s the joy of life, la alegría de la vida that is the Fling! fountain of youth and it can be found or re-found at any age. Rereading passages of Fling! as I write this review has lifted me above my profound sadness for the most recent gun violence in our country. I’m feeling kinder toward our leadership. I feel like dancing, in fact. Maybe a Mexican Hat Dance? Fling! is a perfect book for now. As renowned author Lewis Buzbee puts it, Fling! is both hilarious and touching. Every page is a surprise, and the characters! I especially loved Bubbles, one of the most endearing mothers in recent fiction. A scintillating read.” ~Lewis Buzbee, award-winning author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshopg review and faculty at University of San Francisco MFA program.

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The Dating Bender

 

34738880I get it. Discovering who we are, what we love and transcending our crappy upbringings (or just escaping them) can be an arduous journey fraught with difficult trials and disastrous errors. We’re inculcated with our parent’s values, unfulfilled desires and bad behavior from our earliest memories. What Mom tells us we are is what we believe, and for many of us, me included, how she defined us was totally disconnected to what we knew to be true—deep down in our pure hearts.

Growing up wasn’t a smooth ride, and I longed to be able to strike out on my own (on Dad’s dime, of course) and become my true self. This true self involved a handsome prince who would rescue me from my lowly status  of  “difficult child” and restore me to my rightful place as Queen of the manor. All I need to do was learn the piano, learn tap and ballet, get straight As, speak French, demonstrate debutante manners and gracious hosting (physician husbands expected a wife who could entertain) be kind, sweet, chaste, God fearing, and compliant. Oh, and I was expected to also become a June Cleaver level housewife, cheerfully vacuuming the house in pearls and heels with my hair perfectly coiffed while a gourmet meal baked in the oven and hubby’s shirts lined up, starched and wrinkle free in the closet. I hated ironing and this was the Summer of Love. Who the hell coiffed their hair? Needless to say, tensions escalated at home and I couldn’t wait to get out.

“Go to college and find a husband. Learn how to do something practical in case you ever have to support yourself,” was my father’s advice. I loved school, it was an easy out, but the husband part was more difficult. Having been directed in all my decisions from birth, even in which gloves to wear to shopping in San Francisco, I lacked skill in making good ones. Add the fact I had no idea who I was or what I loved beyond Beat poetry, fairytales and fiction, I made horrendous choices in potential husbands. Unfortunately for me, my dating bender lasted until I turned fifty.Unknown-1

 

Samantha Serrano, adult daughter of good Catholic alcoholics, flees her dysfunctional family into a marriage that’s all wrong for her in The Dating Bender. It’s not that Sheldon is a bad guy, he’s just too busy building his career to be a husband and Samantha is too immature to do anything but run away, her patterned response. This time she runs to the world of high tech start-ups where her sex-pot friend Babs goads her into crazy, risky behavior and she starts a new affair with a despicable, nerdy and brilliant coworker that is a train wreck in the making. Things are not improved with the arrival of Sheldon and all of their worldly possessions rescued from the marriage. Samantha in typical response flees, the marriage over and the start-up job a bust. She goes home to Mom and Dad who are drunker, more critical and impose more expectations than ever.

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Drunk Parents

Samantha doesn’t last long at home. She hops a Greyhound for New Your City and falls into one relationship after the next as she suffers her irrational and demanding boss’s insane demands until she can’t take it anymore. Leaving a string of failures, she flies to Rome for a “power-confession’ at the Vatican. She ends up at the Trevi fountain to toss coins into the water and cry. images-3Her wallet goes missing, her ex-husband has appeared, and although a handsome Lothario is making love to her over espresso, she has an epiphany.

In Samantha’s words, I paced around my hotel room and obsessed over the facts. I had been married, divorced, fired, disowned, and almost excommunicated by a meddling nun.. . . Now it was all about my come-to-Jesus meeting with Sheldon, fitting considering my proximity to the religious capitol of the world. She keeps her lunch date with Sheldon and through their interaction comes to understand she’s not a bad person, but a normal woman who had fought hard to break away from her family’s vision of her and finally won. Samantha has forgiven herself, her parents and Sheldon. She’s free to finally live her life.

Throughout all the trials and tribulations of her own marriage, separation and divorce, Sam maintains a snarky wit, often making fun of herself. She appears to thrive on drama and is a popular culture junkie—reading every self-help article in every woman’s magazine. She constantly compares real life to the information in the articles through humorous observations, as she slowly grows from immaturity, naïve denial, fear and overwhelm to the contentment of knowing who she is and what she wants.

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Really?

Although at times I wanted to grab Sam and shake her for her blind, helpless attitudes and behaviors, especially all the vomiting, I found her lesson to be similar to my own, and often much funnier. Author Christina Julian demonstrates the makings of a fine contemporary humorist in her first Rom-com. Her writing occasionally goes over-the-top with the boozy “wah-wah” of Sam’s pathetic life, but is redeemed in its modern wit, sarcastic humor, fast-pace and detail laden prose. The Dating Bender’s plot is rich in disaster and soul searching, and Samantha is a complex character with a wide range of emotions and behaviors that attest to Julian’s powers of observation and empathy. I like how she’s put it all together to lead readers through the arc of growing out of dysfunction into a satisfying conclusion of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption.

images-6I’m certain that Samantha Serrano is going to be a beacon for thousands of young women trying to balance their upbringings, their families, their work and their notions of God to create for themselves a healthy life, living free of outmoded thought, dogma and stress. Happiness? I hope everyone finds it, but sometimes the process of finding it is what’s compelling. The journey to master herself in a changing world (with dramatic style) and find peace and love is what draws us to Samantha. My heart went out to her as along the way she made so many of the mistakes I made. Samantha shows me that no matter how awful and wrong our origins, we can’t run away, but we can prevail in finding ourselves and establishing the life we should have. Weeks after reading The Dating Bender, Samantha Serrano still haunts me.

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Here’s a hearty congratulation to debut novelist Christina Julian on Launch Day!           May you delight us with many more to come.

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A Life for a Life

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A few years ago, my sister-in-law retired, leaving her urban lifestyle and moving to a cozy cottage in Warrensville, North Caroline on the edge of the Great Smokey Mountains. Her tales of the quaint village atmosphere, the surrounding natural beauty, and the restful pace of life lure me to visit. Out of curiosity I started reading about the state, and recently stumbled across A Life for a Life by Lynda McDaniel, journalist and award-winning author of fifteen books. This is her first novel, a cozy murder mystery set in the fictional town of Laurel Falls in the remote mountains of Appalachia.

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Laurel Falls is a town that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, including the name of Coburn’s General Store even when newcomer Della Kinkaid buys it on a whim after a stay in the Black Mountains. No one could remember why the store was called Coburn’s and no one was going to call it anything else.

o19-700x466Until she decided to buy Coburn’s, Della hadn’t known how much she wanted a change in her life. She was eager to leave her career as a high-profile Washington D.C. reporter, her cheating ex-husband and all the “big city hassles” for the dilapidated store and apartment in a tiny town known for its waterfall and miles of wilderness hiking trails. It was in the woods Della and her dog, Jake, come across the body of a young woman. The woman is a stranger to Laurel Falls and sketchy evidence points the sheriff to think she committed suicide. Della disagrees and turns to an unlikely group of customers and friends, including a forger and her ex, to solve the crime.

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Although Della hasn’t been welcomed into the community, she has made a few friends. First among them is Abit, the fifteen-year-old son of the previous owners of Coburn’s. Abit’s real name is Vester, but because he’s “a bit slow” he received the moniker as a child and it’s stuck. Abit is a character in the vein of Forrest Gump, but unlike Forrest, he is not well accepted by his family or schoolmates. Abit’s father has removed him from school and the boy has little to do but lounge in his chair on the porch of the store and watch the world ignore him as it passes by. Abit recognizes how Della and he are alike, and their friendship deepens as he helps her with the store and solving the murder.

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The story is a cloze puzzle with Della and Abit meting out information in chapters of alternating points of view. The book commences with a prologue where Abit announces, “My life was saved by a murder.” It’s true. Throughout the narrative Abit and Della form a bond, and both characters journey into self-discovery and growth that lift them from “outsider” status. Each brings skills and knowledge to the investigation and life in a closed society that the other lacks. The dual points of view I found an enhancement to the story. I found their interactions with the varied supporting characters, who add to or hinder the work of living in Laurel Falls and finding a murderer, to be believable. They add color and interest to the story, and several, hopefully, will return in the sequel.

The characters and the setting are as much to do with the story as the mystery. Author, Lynda McDaniel’s attention to detail and adroit descriptions allow the reader to step right into Laurel Falls. You can hear the trumpeting call of the pileated woodpecker and feel the mist rising off the waterfall. Drawing from her “back to the land” years in North Carolina, McDaniel has stitched a patchwork of true and fictional events and people into a thoughtful mystery rooted in race, greed power and sorrow. People from McDaniel’s time in Appalachia crop up in A Life for a Life like the cranky laundromat owner, the gentle giant beekeeper who provides Della with honey, the woman who taught McDaniel to make blackberry jam and can tomatoes, Della’s best friend Cleva.

images-8McDaniel’s writing style, while vivid with detail, is deceptively straightforward. She’s not prone to overwrite her scenes or devolve into flowery dialog. She uses authentic sounding dialog and delivers real down-home southern mountain culture in what one reviewer compared to the style of Fannie Flagg. A Life for a Life has also been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird. I agree that both depict southern mores and southern style small-town living, albeit in different eras, well. Both are character driven and back a strong message of forgiveness, redemption and acceptance.Unknown-1

In A Life for a Life, a tragedy becomes the opportunity for two unlikely characters to re-start their lives: Della accepted into the Laurel Falls community and Abit embraced within his family and offered the opportunity he had dreamed of.

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A Life for a Life is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read this year. Everything about the book delighted me. I want to know more about the quirky folks in the mountains and the southern customs. The sense of personal independence, the strong family ties, and the slow-moving and tight-knit community are characteristics I applaud. Lynda McDaniel claims that everything she values today, she learned in her Appalachian home, and she’s written her love and gratitude into A Life for a Life.

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I’ve never taught at a university, but I know what schools are like. After I won my MA, I accepted a position as a non-credit teacher at a local community college. Wow! I was stoked—I planned to put all that theory into practice and knew my school would celebrate my work and dedication.

Let’s just say I was delusional. It didn’t take long to discover I was regarded lower in status than that broke second cousin on the doorstep. Like credit staff, non-credit teachers are expected to attend meetings, plan, assess and report but for half the hourly pay. As Alma, a character in Oink, says, “It’s all work, low pay, and no respect.”

It’s always a delight to meet a protagonist that embodies my own values. Emily Addams is a professor of women’s studies at Arbor State University. Founded as an agricultural college in Northern California, it is rapidly shedding its reputation as an easygoing and humane community as the university adopts the worldviews of the corporations funding research into new technologies and cuts funds to the small programs.

A new Vice Provost has come aboard and Emily and her colleagues from the interdisciplinary programs face a difficult and perplexing choice for funding purposes. If they don’t choose, they may lose their programs, but even if they come in under the umbrella of Humanities or Social Sciences, they will have to prove their programs worthy of receiving funds. One way or the other, the warm community built over the years looks doomed. Building community and fighting injustice are important to Emily and she’s spent her career doing both, especially through cooking and eating.

PigBaby1Emily learns that Peter Elliott, a Professor of Plant Biology has been found face down in one of the school’s pigpens, presumably poisoned. The rumor says a group opposing genetically engineered crops is behind the poisoning as Elliott is researching GMO corn and a staunch supporter of Syndicon, the major GMO seed controller. Emily had learned about the GMO issues at a panel on GMOs and wondered, “was it GMOs themselves or the policies of the corporations that produced them— the relentless focus on profit, the resistance to regulation, the absence of concern for harming, or even helping, others… “ that gave GMOs a bad name?

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But Emily has other worries. Forty something with a young daughter and recently divorced, she’s getting into the dating game. As we meet her, she’s worried that her hair-do has flattened (I empathize with that) because she’s meeting mathematics professor Wilmer Crane after work for their first date. Crane tells Emily about finding Elliot in the pigpen clutching a piece of cornbread, which turns out to contain goat cheese and caramelized onions—Emily’s signature recipe.     2077366

Emily is named a suspect and rallies her community with food and camaraderie to investigate what really happened. She learns Elliot was receiving secret corporate funding for his new strain of genetically modified corn, he’d betrayed two of his women students and his highly accomplished wife through his philandering, as well as the Save the Fields organization gunning for him.

Named one of the funniest books coming this spring by BookBub.Com, author J.L. Newton describes the first of the Emily Addams series, “Culminating in a twist as curvy as a pig’s tail, Oink: A Food for Thought Mystery is at once a sly send-up of the corporatized university and a reminder of why community belongs at that heart of human life.” She makes a good case for community and organic food, punctuating her points with delectable recipes at the end of each chapter. Her language is both accessible and intelligent, Emily and her colleagues sound like professors, parents and friends in realistic dialog and witty narration. I appreciated the thoughtful and often humorous look at two important themes, the corporatization of campuses and GMOs.

Newton does not support corporate influenced universities, but she does make a case for the potential for GMO foods to feed the world. Respected scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and thebc2f1ddf99da4c777b98768be883078e_400x400 World Health Organization, have concluded that the GMO crops on the market are safe to eat. Even pundit Michael Pollan said recently the technology itself may not fundamentally pose a greater health threat than other forms of plant breeding. “ I think most of the problems arise from the way we’re choosing to apply it, what we’re using it for, and how we’re framing the problems that it is being used to solve.”

Cozy mystery fans, fans of food novels, and readers concerned with the health of our world and its people will enjoy the twisting plot and the delicious dishes shared throughout the novel. I’m working my way through the recipes and reliving the scenes as I cook. Part of that enjoyment comes through the vivid sense of place Newton has created. At times her description becomes lush and lyrical as she details the flora and fauna, the climate and the bucolic campus.

Emily Addams comes alive on the page. She is intelligent, caring, witty, concerned and a great cook. She connects with people through sincerity and food and doesn’t try to be more than her capabilities. She fears, questions herself, doesn’t give up easily and does what is right. I’m really pleased to find a new voice in Emily Addams who I can both identify with and share a corn and cherry scone!

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Congratulations to J.L. Newton for her debut of what I’m hoping is a long-lived series of Food for Thought Mysteries. Smart, timely, readable but not dumbed-down—“Oink is a celebration of community connected to the joy of food and fellowship.”—Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, authors of The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Oink is out today.  Pick up your copy at Amazon or your local bookstore. And if you’re local, join J.L. Newton for her launch of Oink In Berkeley.-1

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Dying on the Vine

 

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I didn’t think it could get any better than a wedding in Mexico turned murder mystery, but Marla Cooper has proven me wrong with the second Kelsey McKenna, Destination Wedding Mysteries, Dying on the Vine. This time Kelsey and her intrepid crew solve a crime close to home—the Napa Valley—Wine Country.

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3eaf37254262351bb62495396d14dbaaThe Napa Valley is possibly one of the most beautiful places on earth. I’m lucky enough to drive through it every week to work, and lately the vines have broken into bud, the mustard has begun to bloom and the fruit trees have exploded into clouds of flower. The wineries have put on their party dresses, welcoming the start of tourist season— locals are flocking out to partake of the spring bounty exuberantly sprouting around us.

Even I left my computer to attend a medieval

birthday party at St. Helena’s Castello di Amarosa, a 13th century castle brought over and assembled by the Sattui family, I pictured the disaster if barrels started rolling. Kings, queens, ladies, nuns, even the Pope wouldn’t be safe—I was reading Dying on the Vine at the time.

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Ok, so they don’t wear medieval costume in the book, but danger lurks in the real lives of wedding planners! Kelsey McKenna isn’t coddling a bride in an exotic setting as the story opens; she’s helping out her friend Brody, a wedding photographer, at his booth at the Wine Country Wedding Faire. She isn’t looking for clients, more interested in the cupcakes, but she’s approached by Haley Bennett and Christopher Riegert in a pinch because her father has fired the planner, Babs Norton. Kelsey can’t say no but, as Babs is the “Queen of Wine Country Weddings,” she calls on Babs to smooth the water and collect Babs’ files. Unfortunately, Babs lies dead on her office floor.images-5

 

The wedding planning community is small and buzzing by the time Kelsey attends the funeral. There, she is accused by Babs’ assistant, Stefan, of murdering his boss. Because she found the body, Kelsey’s a person of interest. She will have to clear her name and enlists Brody and her new assistant, Laurel, to help.

Meanwhile, the wedding looms and Kelsey and Laurel don’t know any of the details. Simple things like who is the caterer? Where are the flowers coming from? The couple left everything up to Babs and the file isn’t accessible. Kelsey needs to do some sleuthing just to find out what still needs to be done for the wedding and as she uncovers the plan, she also uncovers secrets that send her down one wrong turn after the next.

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It’s when another planner is attacked that Kelsey starts to fear for her own life, but it’s too late to turn back. The wedding must go on. And in the end, it does, but with that expected Cooper twist!

Cooper has crafted another funny, smart and on trend cozy mystery. This book may be better than the last, pointing to an author who takes her craft seriously. While the Dying on the Vine is often hilarious, Cooper has woven chilling suspense and heart thumping pacing throughout, balanced out with plenty of descriptions and opportunities to slow down and get to know the characters. The twists and turns kept me reading almost all night and the big climax was a total surprise. I didn’t see it coming—those Cooperesque red herrings again (but I missed the tequila donkey this time).

I fell in love with Kelsey and Brody in, Terror in Taffeta, and I’m pleased to get to know them better in this second of the series. Kelsey proves her integrity and again demonstrates her professionalism, but we also see her more vulnerable side. She needs her friends to help solve this murder. The three, Kelsey and her two sidekicks, Brody and Laurel are well characterized and create an agreeable synergy. Each personality is distinctly portrayed through their actions and the crisp, modern dialog. Kelsey’s and Brody’s banter reminds me of siblings or best friends, funny and familiar. Laurel is new to the scene, but she holds her own, proving her mettle through her trustworthiness, initiative and competence.

Dying on the Vine is a delicious late harvest Zinfandel boasting notes of humor and suspense, full-bodied character and a sweet finish. Marla Cooper and Kelsey McKenna don’t disappoint.

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Congratulations Marla Cooper! Dying on the Vine published yesterday and I’m already hankering for my next destination. Might it be Kelsey’s own dream wedding? Where will we cozy-up next?

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Lovers at the Alhambra, Generalife, Spain

P.S. Don’t you love Cooper’s book covers?! Read my review of  Terror in Taffeta here.

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Small Town Lies

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Texas Hill Country. Thanks to xtri.com

I was stymied when my niece moved her family to a small town in the Texas Hill Country some years ago. Why would anyone leave the Bay Area for a couple acres of scrub oak and a pickup truck in a town so small you’ve missed it if you yawn? Not that I have anything against small towns. I grew up in Ross so long ago it still retained a small town character. We knew everybody, and people looked out for each other. Eddie’s Ross Grocery and the Sunday social in the Rectory after church were rich in gossip. Officer Flowers kept the peace and investigated crimes—usually something to do with petty theft.

But still—my family has taken up residence in a small town several states away? I didn’t get it—that is, until I discovered Terry Shames’s delightful mystery series set in a small Texas town.

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Congratulations!

Shames won the Macavity Award for best first novel in 2013 for A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery set in Jarrett Creek. She has since published The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake, all chronicling the slow as molasses lifestyle and the dark secrets festering below the veneer of peacefulness of this sleepy town.

Shames’s fascination with the town where her grandfather was mayor and where she grew up is clear through her precise documentation of the details of small town life in Jarrett Creek. She’s created a cast of characters that could represent any small American town, yet are inextricably bound to Jarrett Creek, starting with the hero, Samuel Craddock. He’s an unpretentious widower, the town’s retired police chief, who has been called out of retirement after Jarrett Creek runs out of money. He’s old fashioned and gentlemanly, prefers the company of women and his cattle, and is at home sipping lemonade and eating berry-filled buns in his neighbor, Loretta’s, kitchen while she gossips about everyone in town. In fact, she’s a prime source of intelligence when Craddock is investigating a murder.

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It’s Loretta who has her finger on the pulse of the town when Nonie Blake returns to Jarrett Creek after a twenty-year stint in a private mental institution. She’d tried to hang her little sister when she was fourteen. Loretta declares, “She was a dangerous girl and she’ll be a dangerous woman.” Within a week, Nonie turns up dead in the Blake family’s stock pond and Chief Craddock finds few clues. One thing is certain, Nonie was murdered and her reclusive family remains tight-lipped about her, the committal, and why she had come home.

Samuel Craddock’s method of investigation is  from the old school. He’s stumped, and he’s saddled with a rookie cop, Maria Trevino, who comes with attitude and ideas about how police work should be done. Trevino wants to look for hard evidence using methods that make Craddock uncomfortable and worse, make him feel old. He begins to question himself and fears he’s losing his edge to age. It takes some detecting but the two (and a little dog) uncover the layers of lies and cover-ups that go back a generation to finally reveal why Nonie Blake’s murder was necessary.

I fell in love with Samuel Craddock and Jarrett Creek in A Killing at Cotton Hill and the feeling has persisted through five books.  It’s the authentic small-town vibe and the folksy dialog combined with Shames’s adept ability to plot a surprising and quirky murder investigation, coupled with her masterful characterization that makes the series shine. I feel like I’ve lived in Jarrett Creek—and now my darling (and only) niece and her brood (dogs included) live there.

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To read my entire review, please visit:

The Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 32, No. 34, Winter 2016-2017

And be sure to catch up with Terry Shames. Book 6 of the Samuel Craddock Series has just come out:

Excerpted from the Publishers Weekly:  New crime novels delve into policing’s sordid underbelly, merging classic genre themes with zeitgeisty plots By Jordan Foster, Nov 18, 2016 unsettling-crime-thumb

 

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Modern Misterios Set in Silicon Valley

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Read it today!

I believe in serendipity. Throughout the late summer I consumed novels set in Spain in anticipation of my trip. Guidebooks are great for seeing the sights, but novels capture the national character and identify the flavor of a place. Among the books I read were two police procedurals by Antonio Hill and three of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by Carlos Ruis Zafón. I noticed something labyrinthine and dark about all the books I read. I imagined Spain as the backdrop for a Gothic novel. Then, just before leaving for Barcelona, I had the opportunity to read the manuscript of Blood Allegiance. As I read this bone chilling crime novel set in Silicon Valley, I felt pulled into a dark world of exotic secrets, overwrought emotions, and tingling suspense. This modern-day police procedural—for me—a metonymy for gloom and horror, that is until the end. Could these crimes happen here? I was again reminded of Gothic tales, and I was sucked right in.

As it turned out, there’s a good reason why Elin Barnes’s novel reminded me of the Spanish writers. She’s from Madrid. Blood Allegiance contains elements of modern Gothic fiction: rationality vs. irrationality, guilt, strangeness within the familiar, monsters (human ones in this book), and abjection. What a master of suspense, twisting her plot in surprising directions as it weaves around the central story creating a maze of relationships, motivations, violence, and secrets: the lead Santa Clara criminalist is found dismembered at a local restaurant and the crime scene is tagged with gang graffiti. Detective Darcy Lynch (who we know from the first two books in this series) is wading into unknown territory when he’s sent on loan to CATCH, the Cross-Agency Tactical California Homicide Unit. But the case carries more weight for Darcy than apprehending the man who slaughtered a colleague. If he fails, he won’t be reassigned to the task force and his career could be over.
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Another member of the unit is gunned down and a drone crashes into a San Jose Police Department helicopter turning the case into a bloody disaster. Lynch must stop one, or two, of the most vicious California gangs before they execute his entire team.

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The characterization is multilayered. Protagonist, Darcy Lynch, and antagonist, Oscar Amaro are complex and individualized. Both are damaged and both have the capacity for “getting the job done” at whatever cost, yet are imbued with deep humanity. The surprise ending showcases these two characters as clouded mirrors of each other. The secondary characters are also rounded: Sorenson, Lynch’s overweight and gritty partner, Quinn, the sergeant with a deep secret that leads him to a crisis of heart, and Chavo Buenavente, of the rival gang and Oscar’s nemesis all have distinct personalities and distinguishable speech patterns. The characters are many, and their relationships are webbed. I found the hierarchy of gang members most interesting and well-researched, as are the portrayals of law enforcement agencies and employees. Barnes does her homework.

Barnes uses language and plot to instill uneasiness and fear in the reader. Her diction is less elaborate and ornate than the Gothic literature of the past. Instead, it reflects the language of everyday life in Silicon Valley in 2017. One reviewer from the Silicon Valley said, “The characters sound and behave like South Bay folks do.” I found the book to be easy to read and authentic in narrative and dialog.

Thematically Blood Allegiance raises serious questions about integrity, honor and the bonds of family and fraternity. It also sheds light on one of elite Northern California’s dirty problems swept under the rug: gangs. There’s a lot to think about after putting the book down—but don’t expect too much pondering during this action packed page-turner!

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I’m not a Spanish Literature scholar, but I’m betting Ms. Barnes was introduced to and influenced by the Spanish misterio (mystery) genre in school: serial novels inspired by Eugène Sue’s bestseller Les Mystères de Paris (1841-1843). The genre is in fact a spin-off of 19th century French Gothic fiction and represents an attempt to explore society in an urban context. The misterios actively participated in the discourses of their day, as does the Darcy Lynch Series. Serial novels like the misterios and the Darcy Lynch Series act as foundational narratives that record the new order of society. The misterios presented by the novels were in part the mysteries of the new society in the 1800s, one that its readers were learning to navigate—just like the new cyber world of our century. It’s been said that [Spanish misterios] are stories of patriarchal systems in crisis and the consequences of social transgression and relevant today.

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The Gothic form is able to articulate the anxieties of society. Blood Allegiance employs the Gothic tropes of family romance, incarceration and contamination to represent the conflicting ideologies of the 21st century. I congratulate Elin Barnes on taking her place in the venerated tradition of the Spanish misterio—21st Century style!

Elin Barnes grew up in Spain. Her father is a film director and her mother a Swedish author (with a past life as an actress).
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After graduating HS, Elin pursued her dream of becoming an airline pilot. When her eyesight impeded her to fly passenger aircrafts, she switched gears and obtained a BA in Philosophy. After a short stint working for a criminal appeals lawyer, Elin returned to Spain to get her MA in International Commerce.

For the last decade she’s worked in technology for companies like, AT&T, T-Mobile, Google, Microsoft, TiVo, and Samsung. She is on the Board of Sisters in Crime Northern California.

Her passions for law, technology, and thrillers inspired Elin to write the Darcy Lynch Series of thrillers set in Silicon Valley, where innovation is always brewing.

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Corpse Pose

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CONGRATULATIONS JAN M FLYNN!!

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Author Jan Flynn hits the high notes with each of the ten tales in this imaginative and entertaining collection of speculative fiction. I love how the author tells a fantastic story as though it were as commonplace as going to the post office. And in the midst of a wild tale, the reader can believe in the well-drawn characters and feel a range of emotions—laughter foremost.

Each story is tight, genuine, over the top—and delightful to read. I found the writing style clean, well seasoned with modernisms, snarky asides and keen observations. The authorial voice shines through the collection, yet each story sounds unique, beginning with Corpse Pose, a darkly humorous yoga fantasy through Walk-in, and an uplifting look at what we do between human incarnations. The tales range from the hilarious, Imp, to Pills, packed with heart touching magical realism, to the psychological horror of 541. While the collection is touted as horror “illumined by the paranormal,” for me, the “humor and heart” elevate these stories from your run-of-the-mill slasher or vampire tales. If you love dark humor, creepy twists, magical realism and pathos, Corpse Pose: and Other Tales will be your go-to fix. I’ve read it twice. One caution, reading these stories might lead to spontaneous laughter and flights of fancy!biypkpret

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Scheduled to Death

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images-4In the 1950s in my Dad’s Buick, motoring south along El Camino Real, I looked for the bells marking the Spanish explorer’s route and drank in the sights outside my window: stately pillared homes, bars and strip joints, restaurants, shops and traffic. I tasted the air laced with salt and chop suey as we passed through the endless neighborhoods to visit my grandfather, a retired Stanford chemistry professor. at his tree-shrouded Kinsley Avenue home in Palo Alto.

Even as a small child I recognized the rarified atmosphere of peaceful activity, co-operation and camaraderie we encountered in Grandpa’s quiet neighborhood and in explorations of the Stanford campus with its courtyards and red tiled roofs. Excitement in Palo Alto still centers on Stanford University in the form of discovering a solution to global warming or graduating the next Einstein. But the academic world suffers the same jealousies, greed, and crime as anywhere else. Just ask Mary Feliz and her amateur sleuth, Maggie MacDonald, founder and CEO of Simplicity Itself Organizing Services.

Maggie, her husband Max and their two teen aged boys have recently moved from the Sacramento River delta into great-aunt Kay’s 100 year old California Craftsman house in the fictional village of Orchard View up the ridge from Stanford University. “Efficient organization” is Maggie’s passion and she’s working tirelessly to settle into her new home and re-build her business in the Bay Area. She’s Scheduled to Death, in the latest Maggie McDonald Mystery by Mary Feliz publishing through Lyrical Underground in January 2017.

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Maggie is aware that her contract with Professor Lincoln, “Linc” Sinclair straddles the line between failure and success for her career in Orchard View. Her client, a Nobel candidate with a brilliant mind and no sense of organization, needs her to cull three generations of furniture and “stuff” in preparation to sell the family mansion, which will be showcased at realtor Tess Olmos’s holiday event, and he’s not answering the door. images-8Maggie looks for Linc in the the backyard where she encounters formidable Boots letting herself into the kitchen. Boots is the director of the Orchard View Plotters Garden Club and manager of the community garden adjoining Linc’s property.

Linc bicycles up with his dog Newton. The group troops up to Linc’s workroom to inspect his progress and find Linc’s fiancée and Maggie’s best friend, Sarah, dead in a pool of water, a frayed electrical wire grasped in her hand.

Acting Detective Lieutenant Apfel, a detective so unlikeable he can’t get along with his canine unit, arrests Linc for murder and Maggie applies her organizational skills to investigating the crime. She’s driven to solve the mystery out of loyalty to her friends, moral indignation over the sloppy handling of the police investigation—and if Linc’s organizing job isn’t finished and the event is canceled, Maggie’s fledgling Simplicity Itself Organizing Services doesn’t stand a chance.

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Scheduled to Death is a delightful cozy mystery with enough twists and surprises to keep the pages flipping. Between the taciturn garden mistress Boots, her cadre of garden assistants, all former foster children, Stanford graduate students and professors, a bloodthirsty pickup truck and a threatening black Range Rover, there are enough secrets and suspects, explosions and crashes, to keep readers guessing until the end when the truth is revealed. Maggie has her own team of helpers including Orchard View Detective Paolo Bianchi, and family friend, Detective Jason Mueller, on medical leave from the department. They’re as unhappy about Detective Lieutenant “Awful’s” handling of the case as Maggie. Even the dogs, Belle, Newton and Munchkin, play their parts in creating the backdrop to returning peace to Orchard View.

Author Mary Feliz has created a realistic and believable town in the Palo Alto hills. That Maggie is not a professor or attached to the University works in her favor. That she’s a professional organizer with a strong family and social life gives her credibility and reasons to be in places bodies might turn up. She’s uber-organized herself, a boon for an investigator, and possesses familiar middle-class values. Maggie is a woman we might count as a friend and know through our clubs, PTA, church, and social circles. You can count on her: “But friends helping friends is what life is all about…” Intelligent, logical, organized, determined, personable, kind and motivated, Maggie McDonald is a character that will inspire readers.

I enjoyed Feliz’s easy-going writing style. Her prose is clear, modern and the story moves at a good pace. She doesn’t bog us down with constant repetitions or explanations, nor is the language too lofty or stiff. It’s just right: enough elevated vocabulary to sound intelligent balanced with enough familiar phrases to make us comfortable. I loved her technique of starting each chapter with an excerpt from Maggie’s notebook. For example,

Chapter 2 begins:

        Whenever you’re working with electrical appliances or systems,                  check at least twice to assure the power is off.

     From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald, Simplicity Itself Organizing Services

I appreciated the clear, logical progression of the plot to a breath-quickening climax. The leisurely tying up of details into a hoped-for happy ending and the possibility for more adventures added to my enjoyment of the book:

“I’ve learned my lesson, honey. I promise.”

“Of course dear,” Max said. But then he snorted, ruining the formal and dignified tone of his statement. “So, where does that leave your interest in murder investigations? They’re becoming a habit with you.”

“What are the odds of another murder happening in Orchard View?”

Yes, what exactly are the odds? High, I hope!

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I congratulate Mary Feliz on her second in a promising series of cozy mysteries set in Silicon Valley. Maggie McDonald is a charming protagonist even if she has a thing for tripping over bodies. In her first book, Address to Die For, the McDonalds haven’t even moved into their new home when Maggie stumbles across her first case. For an organizing diva, murder was not on the to-do list. I’m betting author Mary Feliz, who has lived in five states and two countries, has moving to a science. It’s a headache no matter how smoothly it goes. Feliz’s travels have shown her that life in Silicon Valley, is much different than life elsewhere and she’s become a self-proclaimed advocate of “irony, serendipity, diversity, and quirky intelligence,” bringing these elements into her characterizations.

Feliz is a Smith College graduate where she studied Sociology. She’s active in Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and, of course, the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Find Scheduled to Death on pre-sale at Amazon and kick off your new year with an exciting mystery. Look for Scheduled to Death on January 17th, and congratulations to Mary Feliz on her delightful new series.

Look for Dead Storage in July 2017

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Semper Fidelis

There are days when I yearn to sit at my desk and let the muse wash through me onto the screen. Those are the days I rue participating in so many writers’ groups, reading so many blogs and keeping up with all my writer friends on Facebook. Let’s face it, life itself throws enough in the way of getting a novel written, why join all these groups then volunteer to: be treasurer, chair the 1-day conference committee, sell at the book festival, and edit the anthology? Well, once in awhile the universe answers! 118396635-11070003-1

I’m a member of the Sisters in Crime Guppies group, an on-line chapter of an organization devoted to supporting writers through the mysterious and twisting maze from writing the novel to revising to determining how to publish, publishing and finally marketing our books. It was through Guppies that the universe introduced me to Seth and his author, JB Morris. I was assigned to be Morris’s BETA reader and the assignment couldn’t have been a better fit for me. I’m already looking forward to the next book!

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Both the title of the book and the protagonist, Seth is a war-weary Staff Sergeant of the elite Marine Corps Force Recon, recalled home after six combat deployments to care for his aged and infirm father. Highly decorated, but broken from the losses of war and haunted by the memories of Marines killed, Seth now works as a police officer for the Hillsdale, Ohio police department. Unfortunately, fate hasn’t offered Seth respite from his demons. The Hillsdale Police Department is overrun with dirty cops and Hillsdale is ground zero for a bloody war between Mexico’s Los Guerreros and Halcon Cartels for control of this strategic access to the lucrative Eastern drug trade.images

 After a takedown goes bad, Seth’s mission is to clear the department of the cops who have opened Hillsdale to the drug trade. With the help of a ‘clean’ superior and trusted colleague, Officer Kat MacKenna, Seth jumps into his assignment and begins to uncover layers of corruption. As he and Kat get too close, the drug-selling officers threaten Seth’s father and he fights like a Marine.

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The story is about a drug war and Seth’s healing. Seth is a multi-faceted character. Damaged early in life through living with a mentally ill mother, Seth suffers loss after loss. His wife, Allison, betrays him and dies in an automobile crash. He loses men in Iraq, and fails to save his best friend, Billie, who commits suicide after coming home from Iraq. While Kat and his father are constants in his life, his father is fading and he does not love Kat as she loves him. He grapples with guilt on both accounts and especially for Billy’s death. He doesn’t feel Hillsdale holds anything for him, but honor binds him to his job and he goes after the corrupt cops and both warring cartels with a vengeance.

 Seth is told from the point of view of many characters. In the hands of a less skilled writer, the shifts from character to character might be confusing, but I found the transitions clear and the look inside all the players’ heads to be gripping. In particular the assassin, Angel, a Mexican woman aligned with Halcon cartel, to be fascinating. images-4She truly is the Angel of Death and appears almost as a magical being emerging from the jaguar skin of the ancient Aztec warrior cult of the Cuāuhocēlōtl. Angel and Seth are two sides of the same coin—warriors to the core, deeply principled, and doing a job.images-3

Angel yearns to buy her freedom from the cartel and return to her warrior cult, just as Seth yearns to leave Hillsdale and the police behind.

 

Author JB Morris is a master of the battle scene. He also has a sound understanding of drug cartel culture and operations. My heart pounded with the excitement of the gun battles. Like Tom Clancy, Morris gives his readers in-depth details on weapons and battle. I came away from Seth with loads of information and even a great idea for a shoot-out in my own suspense novels. Readers who like specific details of weapons will find Seth satisfying.

 Morris also does a good job with his character’s voices. Seth’s voice is spare—he’s a man of few words. His superior is more erudite. Angel obviously is speaking English as a second language, although her fluency is excellent. Kat sounds like a modern woman. I appreciated Morris’ tight, spare style. He doesn’t drift into flights of lyrical fancy yet I felt the imagery sufficient to feel like that “fly on the wall” in the scene.

 Seth is an intelligent, layered, and fast-paced thriller that will keep the reader turning pages. There is plenty of action and plenty of character development to offer a rich experience for the reader. When things look bleakest for Seth, a savior appears in the form of a “brother in arms” and if Seth makes it through the “mission” his future may be happier. I’m banking on more books!

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JB Morris didn’t imagine he would become an author, although he began writing poetry in high school. When he was offered a contract for a book of poems, he turned it down, too busy with his career as a funeral director and manager of a cemetery. He served as  a commander in the Army Reserves and went on to working as a TV weatherman, a city council member and a state legislator.

But Morris claims that something was always missing. Other than articles he wrote, he wasn’t working on any novels. Much later the vision of Grace an Unexpected Love filled his head and he began work on his first novel. Now JB Morris fills his time writing romance and thrillers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Let’s all give him a big hand on the publication of his second novel, Seth. And keep your fingers crossed for the speedy delivery of the next book!

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