Monday 31 March 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5

After the weirdness that was the season 4 finale set entirely in the characters' dreams, season five opens with a pretty fun and relatively fluffy episode, in which Buffy comes face to face with Dracula himself. And boy, does he look out of place in the Buffyverse! This Dracula looks like he's wandered off the set of Interview with the Vampire, maybe even from the Volturi of Twilight, and it just felt wrong. I enjoyed seeing the allusions to the original novel, especially poor Xander filling the Renfield role, but overall it was a pretty average episode - right until the end, when we meet Buffy's younger sister, Dawn.

But Buffy doesn't have a sister.

It's not just that we've never seen her or heard her name mentioned. This isn't just a bad-soap retcon; things Buffy says in the next few episodes contradict what we have seen on screen. "It's not like she hasn't grown up in this house!" Buffy grumbled in episode two; but she hasn't. Buffy herself was surprised to see her, for a moment, when she first appeared. I wondered if the Jonathan-centred episode of season 4, "Superstar" was a practice run for season 5's storyline, in which we, with Buffy and her friends, are plunged into an alternative universe without being told, and left to figure it out for ourselves.

Actually, though the Dawn storyline runs through the entire season, we get answers a lot earlier than I had expected; once more Joss Whedon and his team of writers defy the rules of storytelling to bring us something exciting and new. We learn quite early on why Dawn has always been there... but wasn't always there last week. She is a "key" made of "energy" into the form of a human who will be protected by the strongest woman in the world: Buffy Summers, to prevent the season's Big Bad, Glory, from opening up all doors between parallel dimensions and causing another apocalypse. It kind of makes sense in context. Kind of.

I wasn't thrilled to see that Buffy's boyfriend Riley is still around, and still in the title credits. How come he's in the title credits but Tara is still only listed as a guest star? He was okay, but dull, for season four, but now he's outstayed his welcome. After my last review, Laura queried my assessment of him as "nice." Even in the last season he had some unfortunate character traits that reared their heads occasionally: he could be too persistant, a bit needy, and whatever he might say, he didn't really like that Buffy could take care of herself instead of letting him be the big strong protector. In season five, we see these insecurities grow until they overshadow everything likable about Riley, to the point where I was shouting "JUST GO!" every time I saw him. It took him too long, but I have never been so pleased to see such an indifferent character leave. My friend arrived at my house one day to find me shrieking "YES YES HE'S REALLY GONE!" Good riddance, and please don't come back.

And then there's Spike! I liked Spike from the moment he screeched his car into Sunnydale back in season two, and now we get to see another side to his character. In season five, he comes to realise that he has a crush on Buffy.


We've seen Spike as a formidable, quick-witted foe, and we've seen him as a whiny, powerless villain who
no one takes seriously. Now we get to see Spike in love. It is a strange, unsettling story to follow. Certainly Buffy and Spike have chemistry, and are very entertaining to watch together as they fight (and do they ever meet without fighting?) Spike's infatuation made me think of the Phantom of the Opera: simultaneously pitiful and creepy. Sometimes his obsession brings out his better side (even if he is usually only trying to impress Buffy) and sometimes it drives him to disturbing extremes - Buffybot anyone? The two sides of his character do not sit comfortably together; I think we like to be sure whether we feel sorry for a character or are repulsed by them, and Spike evokes both reactions.

We also get to see some of Spike's backstory: as an angsty would-be poet in Victorian England. At first, I thought he could not be more unlike the Spike we've come to know, but as the series progressed and as I thought about it some more, I came to realise that the change was not as great as I'd first thought - and not as great as it should be. This is the change of someone who has lived for over a hundred years, not the change of someone who has had his entire being replaced with that of a monster. Spike seems to be very human, and becoming more so.

For the first time, another character expresses the same reservations I've been having about Willow's use of magic. Her girlfriend, Tara, is a more experienced witch, and as such, has a better understanding of what the limits are. Willow gives Dawn a bit of help in her attempt to do a very dubious spell, and later faces Glory with some terrifying magic. I think it's safe to say that any magic that turns your eyes black is best left alone. But I predict Willow has only just begun and this story will get worse before it gets better.

This season has been all about family: Dawn being inserted into the Summers family and being accepted as one of their own, and the Scooby gang as a family. In the middle of the season is a story revolving more around the Summers women than anything supernatural, when Buffy's mother, Joyce, discovers she has a brain tumour, has surgery, recovers, and then dies from an aneurysm. I'll be honest: I was expecting this since Buffy quipped in season four that she hoped her mother would have a "funny aneurysm" when she saw the cost of her college textbooks. I've lost many hours of my life to the website TvTropes, and I was familiar with the "Funny Aneurysm Moment" trope in which a joke or light-hearted comment is echoed by a far more serious turn of events later on. I didn't know at the time that the page namer came from Buffy, but as soon as she spoke the line, I knew Joyce was doomed. I had not expected the story to be so drawn-out, however, covering several, very well-done episodes, and culminating in "The Body." "The Body" is an extraordinary episode which portrays the shock of grief like nothing else I've ever seen. I realised while watching it that the reason everything seemed so still and silent was that there was no music, no soundtrack, nothing to ease the tension. A very powerful episode indeed, probably the best yet.

In the season five finale, Buffy becomes much darker than ever before, when the Scoobies realise that there is no way they can defeat Glory, and try to make a run for it. Glory has tormented Tara, who is lost and confused within her own mind, and Giles is wounded by a spear through the windscreen of Spike's camper-van (causing Serenity flashbacks: WHY WHEDON, WHY?) Buffy calls Ben, the handsome medical intern she befriended in the hospital when her mother was ill, little knowing that he shares his body with Glory herself. Instead of a glorious (sorry) climactic battle between Buffy and Glory, the villain meets her end at the hands of Giles, while in the form of "Ben." It is chilling to watch as the nice, polite, English librarian kills Ben in cold blood with his bare hands. We've heard before that Giles has a dark past, but this is the first time we really see what that means.

Ben: She could have killed me. Giles: No, she couldn't. Never. And sooner or later Glory will re-emerge, and make Buffy pay for that mercy. And the world with her. Buffy even knows that...and still she couldn't take a human life. She's a hero, you see. She's not like us.Ben: Us?
But even destroying Glory via Ben is not enough to save the world. Only Buffy can do that, by making the greatest sacrifice: her own life. Compare her calm decision with that of the sixteen-year-old at the end of season one, desperate not to die. She's changed a lot: become more serious and grown up, but losing her witty humour. The Slayer's life has not been an easy one, and here it is, cut short. Apparently season five was written to be a potential series finale, and it certainly feels like one. The "previouslies" at the beginning go right back to the very first episode, showing everything that has led up to this point. This finale is darker and more epic than before. All the same, I'm glad that there are still to seasons to come. What a note to end it on!

Best episodes: (It would be misleading to use the word "favourite.)

6. Family: In which we find out a lot more about Tara. The episode end with Spike punching her in the face - which is not usually a thing that one would find heartwarming, but in context is rather lovely.
7. Fool for Love: Showing Spike's backstory. Introducing: William the Bloody (terrible).
10. Into the Woods: I'm only including this because we see the back of Riley. The episode itself is infuriating.
12. Checkpoint: Buffy vs. the Watchers' Council.
13. Blood Ties: In which Dawn discovers her life has been a lie.
15. I Was Made To Love You: A remarkably average robot-girlfriend-of-the-week episode, with a shocking ending. "Mom... Mom?... Mommy?"
16. The Body: "But I don't understand! I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore! It's stupid! It's mortal and stupid! And, and Xander's crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why."
17. Forever: Dawn tries to bring her mom back from the dead. Thank goodness we don't get to see the results.
18. Intervention: Spike creates a Buffy-bot. Time to get off the ship. This is not boyfriend material.
19. Tough Love: Willow and Tara have their first quarrel, with tragic results.
22. The Gift: The darkest and most epic finale yet.

Friday 21 March 2014

The Martian - Andy Weir

It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving.

 If an astronaut was accidentally left behind on Mars, could he possibly survive long enough to be rescued? In The Martian, Andy Weir sets out to answer that question in an intelligent, brilliantly-researched and believable way.

This is my food supply. All natural, organic, Martian-grown potatoes. Don't hear that every day, do you?
It took me quite a while to get into The Martian at first. Most of the story is told in astronaut Mark Watney's log, with step-by-step details of: "Here's what I'm going and this is how it works." I'm not very scientifically-minded, so I had to read some passages through a couple of times to understand at least the gist of them, and Weir doesn't spell out the definition of every unfamiliar word: either we know what "Hab," "sol" and "EVA" mean, or we figure it out from context. In the first log entries, I found the mixture of scientific detail and silly humour jarring. But then, of course the humour would feel forced. The man's just been left for dead on Mars, and he's trying to make the best of things. Joking is perhaps not the natural response to this unique situation, but it's a survival mechanism.

But just because this was a slow read, doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it. Spending more time with a book and putting more effort into reading it can be rewarding, and ultimately I think The Martian is the best book I've read this year so far.

It didn't take me very long to appreciate Watney's character: a likable, unflappable and determined guy with a goofy sense of humour. He had to be. Personality is a crucial part of space travel, because if you're stuck in a tin can with just a few people for months on end, you have to not want to kill each other. Also, Watney's resourceful and logical nature in the face of almost certain death makes him a very realistic astronaut. Yes, if surviving alone on Mars for over a year is possible, this man could do it.

"I wonder what he's thinking now."
Log Entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They're mammals! Makes no sense.
The pace of the story picked up when the narrative switched between Watney's log and NASA discovering his survival and attempting to bring him home. From Earth, we get a broader perspective of what Watney has to deal with, and the efforts put into bringing him home, but there is also an added tension when satellite images reveal obstacles that Watney is unaware of. I grew to dread the switch from first person to third, especially on Mars, because the omniscient narrator was about to tell the reader something that Watney did not know - usually disaster.

Phobos is the god of fear, and I'm letting it be my guide. Not a good sign.
The Martian is a rollercoaster ride (or rover ride, perhaps) of victorious success and catastrophic setbacks, and each obstacle asks the same question anew: how can Watney possibly survive this? I found myself sitting bolt upright, glued to the page and shouting at the book. Watney's survival is never assured, even in the final few pages. The Martian gave me a real adrenaline rush, if a non-traditional one. It is also utterly heartwarming the huge efforts and expense put in to save one man's life, how the entire world comes together to attempt to bring Watney home, refusing to give up while the tiniest bit of hope remains.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer concluded with Buffy and her friends graduating with style, putting high school behind them with all the finality anyone could wish for, burning the school to the ground. Season 4 moves into a brand new stage of life. Buffy, Willow and Oz are off to college, Cordelia, I gather, has vanished over to the other side with Angel (though I haven't watched his series) and Xander is trying to figure out just what he wants to do with his life. As well as graduating from high school, Buffy has decided she no longer needs a Watcher telling her what to do. Giles is still there to advise her, but thankfully there are no more of the arguments about whether or not a Slayer can live an ordinary life.

Buffy: "I'm going to do a thing.
Giles: "You can't do the thing. You're the Slayer."
Buffy: "I never get to do the thing. It's not fair."
Giles: "It might not be fair, but you have a sacred duty. No doing of the thing, not for you."
Buffy: *sulks* *does the thing anyway* *chaos and disaster ensues.*

Now Buffy has to juggle university life, her slayer duties the other side of town, and a brand-new boyfriend, the decent but dull Riley Finn, an older student and member of a top-secret government monster-fighting initiative.

There were some great episodes in season four, but I have to say I wasn't wildly interested in the main plot about the Initiative and the Frankenstein's monster they created. It was all very military and clinical, and I didn't feel that the monster, Adam, was really worthy of being the series' Big Bad. He came across more of a monster-of-the-week. For a while I wondered if Riley might be the ultimate villain; surely someone that bland must have hidden depths. But no. I suppose Buffy does really need someone ordinary and nice in her life. Her boyfriends can't all be tormented vampires. She needs a break and can't always be mixing business and pleasure.

Spike is back in this season, captured by the Initiative and tamed by an implant in his head that means he is unable to harm any human. This new, de-fanged Spike is hilarious to watch: whiny and petty, and constantly frustrated that Buffy and her friends keep on asking for his help. How come they keep forgetting that they are mortal enemies, he hates them and wants to see them dead?

Once again, Joss Whedon managed to take everything I loved and smash it into tiny little pieces in episode six, in which Oz discovers another werewolf in town, and is faced with the terrible dilemma of either letting her run free killing people on the full moon... or betray Willow. The episode goes to great pains to show a true and loving relationship that really ought to be able to survive the strain of jealousy - but the werewolf thing is too much, and Oz leaves town, unable to trust what he might do under the curse of the full moon. Alyson Hannigan's acting is devastating. Poor, poor Willow. (And poor Oz.) Her heartbreak is so painful to watch, and rings so true to anyone who's been on the wrong end of being dumped: denial, bitterness, anger. And there was another level to the sadness from a viewer's point of view, when I noticed Seth Green had gone from the title credits. He really had left, then.

But not for good. Be careful what you wish for around Joss Whedon, because he is an evil mastermind and will give it to you in the most painful way possible: Oz returns once more just as Willow is getting cutely awkward with Tara, a shy girl from her college witchcraft club (the only other witch who practises actual magic instead of talking about "energy" and "auras" and the like. Well... as well as talking about energy and auras.) Oz returns and wants to pick up where he's left off, but Willow isn't in the same place any more. She loves Oz... but she also loves Tara. EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE. This is what love triangles are like: everyone gets hurt and it is ugly and not in the least bit romantic. CURSE YOU WHEDON!!!!!

All through season 4, I felt that something was a bit off with the storytelling, or the characters: it felt wrong. It was difficult to pin down, but the Scooby gang just didn't feel so much fun to be with any more. The banter was off, the chemistry wasn't the same, they didn't feel so much like a team, but a set of individuals whose stories didn't quite mesh together as well as they used to. And in the last few episodes, it becomes clear that this is a crucial part of the narrative. It is some very subtle storytelling, a commentary on how friendships do sometimes grow apart in a new stage of life, whether that be in college, or when some people get married and start families, or move to different places. But it also builds towards the series finale, in which Spike uses his observations about the characters' insecurities and the widening rift between them, as an attempt to separate Buffy from her friends so that the creature Adam can use and defeat her. A very clever long game - and quite a brave decision to sabotage the overall feel of the show in order to tell a greater story. Of course Spike and Adam don't succeed, and the Initiative storyline is wrapped up with one more episode to go.

Wait, what? That's not how it's meant to happen. Every season of every TV show ever has to end on an epic finale, when the bad guys are defeated, the plot strands are pulled together and everything makes sense, leaving the viewer feeling happy and contented in the knowledge that the writers delivered on their promise. How can they finish a series-long story and then tack one more episode on the end? A standalone is never going to live up to a twenty-odd-episode story, right?

Personally, I love it when writers break the rules of storytelling. Dollhouse (also a Whedon project) was another series which finished the first season too early, and the season finale, "Epitaph One" showed a terrifying flash-forward into an apocalyptic future. So I went into the real finale of Buffy season 4 with some trepidation. What did it have in store?

Well, I can safely say, I was not expecting that. The last episode, "Restless" is probably the most surreal thing I have ever seen on a mainstream television show ever. It takes place almost entirely in dreams, and is far more like real dreams than any dream sequence you will ever see on TV; a mixture of character psychology, foreshadowing and complete nonsense. Picking through the images and dialogue, it's tricky trying to figure out what is going to be significant in the future, what was significant only for that episode, and what can be discarded. We see each of the main characters' fears and insecurities played out in symbolic scenes: Willow, for example, dreaming of being back at high school, and going to her first drama class to find that she was expected to act in a play she had never rehearsed in front of everyone she knew. (I've had that one.) Then, there is this supernatural element in the form of the first Slayer, whose spirit was apparently invoked in Buffy's last battle against Adam in what would ordinarily be the season finale.

In Buffy's dream, there was a bed. Just an ordinary, unmade white bed, and I suddenly remembered several episodes back, she had another dream, wherein she and Faith were making up the same bed. Actually, I remember it as part of Faith's coma-dream. What's going on there? I forgot it, as it didn't lead to anything in that particular storyline. I think Faith said something about "Li'l sis is coming." And then, right at the end of the episode, when the Scoobies have all woken from their nightmares, Buffy walks into a room in her house... and the final image is of that bed. As Buffy would say, "it gave me the wiggins." Who would think a simple piece of furniture would have that power? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? (Don't you dare actually tell me.)

I scribbled down some of the lines that stood out from the weirdness as having an air of foreboding.
"Time is running out."
"I'm never gonna find them here."
and, most significantly:
"You think you know... what's to come... what you are... you haven't even begun."
I think that just about sums it up!

Best episodes

6. Wild at Heart. Oh Willow! Oh Oz! Oh, my heart! This was so upsetting and well-written and brilliant and human and upsetting.
7. Initiative. In which Buffy and Riley work at hilarious cross-purposes, both trying to get the other one out of the way so that they can fight the monsters. A scene which shows Spike attempting to vampire Willow rapidly switches from disturbing to very funny, very quickly.
9. Something Blue. Another comic episode, in which Willow casts a spell to make everything she says come true, with hilarious results.
10. Hush. In which the entire town of Sunnydale is struck mute. A gimmick episode, done very well, in the style of a silent movie. A shame it wasn't made in black and white.
15/16. This Year's Girl/Who Are You?: Faith returns! A far more dynamic storyline than the Top Secret Government Organisation plot, which felt quite cold and un-Buffyish. Also: BODYSWAP! Sarah Michelle Geller and Eliza Dushku do an uncanny job of playing each other's roles. I wonder if that was why Eliza Dushku later got the lead in Dollhouse.
17. Superstar: HUH? Did I miss something? Suddenly, Jonathan, a recurring extra who got promoted to supporting character in one episode near the end of season three, is a Slaying mastermind. And promoted to credits. And appearing everywhere, in the background of every shot. Something is off here. The world has changed, but no one seems to have noticed. This time we are plonked into an alternative universe without being told we're in an alternative universe! (I had figured it out before it was spelled out.) Very clever premise, and a lot of fun.
19. New Moon Rising: Be careful what you wish for. My favourite character returned, and I wish he didn't. Everything is horrible.
22. Restless. The aforementioned dream episode. Mind. Blown. Also, what is going on with the man with the cheese?

Sunday 9 March 2014

Sunday Summary: Goodbye winter, and good riddance

Hello to you all.

I know I talk a lot about the weather in these blog posts, but what can I say? I'm British. I've spent the last few days really savouring the sunshine, when I've not been at work. It's been lovely to get home when it's still daylight, to go out without a coat, and to sit in the garden or the park with just my book and a cup of coffee (I'm not that British) for company. I'm reading one of Neil Gaiman's short story collections, Smoke and Mirrors, and reading that in the sunshine to the soundtrack of birdsong makes me feel like I'm waking from hibernation. After last year, when winter went on until the end of May, I can barely believe it. We've made it through another winter. There should be badges for that.

I decided this year to give up buying books for Lent, but this week I bought two last books: The Martian by Andy Weir, and Alexander McCall Smith's latest No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. I've also borrowed The Never List by Koethi Zan from the staffroom mini-library, although from what I gather I have to be in the right mood for that one as it's supposedly pretty gruesome and disturbing. The Alexander McCall Smith books are the opposite: they are very sweet stories set in Botswana, easy to read in an afternoon, philosophical but ultimately a celebration of what it is to be human. The Martian is a new science fiction book that has been whispered about in several parts of the internet, (Sarah reviewed it here) and I bought it in hardback because I couldn't wait to see what all the fuss is about. After Shine, Shine, Shine, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth and most recently, James Smythe's excellent The Explorer, I can't get enough of the space stuff!

It's been busy at work this week, thanks to World Book Day, when all the kids dress up as their favourite fictional characters, and they also get a £1 book token. I don't know if the book fairs still come round to the schools: three metal fold-up bookcases in the school hall or library, where I acquired my first two-in-one Famous Five books, and later, The Cafe Club and Fiona Kelly's Mystery Kids. I remember dressing up as (of course) Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) when I was about nine, wearing a blue-and-white checked dress, straw boater hat, pigtails and felt-tip-pen freckles. I was not, however, allowed to dye my hair red. It would probably have been as successful as Anne's attempt.

I went to see the Lego Movie last night, which was completely ridiculous, but so much fun. I went into the Lego Movie without knowing much about it, and that's the best way to see it so I won't say much about it. But I recommend it for everyone - kids and parents and nostalgic adults, and definitely for those who insist on keeping each set distinct and separate. (Shudder!) The movie is a celebration of imagination, creation and play, with plenty to geek out about. ("Spaceship!") Everything is Awesome! (And try getting that theme song out of your head. You won't be able to do it.)

I did a little fangirl squeal when the Lego Movie included a tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to Fabuland, a long-forgotten Lego town peopled by animal characters, bigger than the usual minifigures, and who made up most of the inhabitants of the Lego world of my childhood. There were storybooks. They had personalities. Most of the Fabuland characters had different names from those they were officially given, and for many years my headcanon was that Edward the Elephant was married to Bonita Bunny, who had two human children, Judith and Jeremy. I was little. I didn't know, or care, about how biology worked, and who's to say what the rules are in the Lego world, anyway? I loved my Lego, and made it my own. I don't know anyone else who remembers the Fabuland creatures. That range ran for 10 years, but was discontinued shortly after I was given my sets, but it has such personal memories for me. This wasn't the Lego that takes up whole walls of the toy shops and has its very own theme parks. This was my childhood, my version of Lego - mine, my own, my precioussss...

My 27th birthday present of Lord of the Rings Lego compares only with my 3rd birthday when I was given that first bucket. I still have it; it lives by my bookcase. I think it once got put away in the attic, but like my Enid Blyton books, I couldn't keep it up there for long.

Thursday 6 March 2014

The Girl with all the Gifts - M. R. Carey

Melanie is a very unusual child. The only home she's ever known is a military base, where she is taken to her classrooms each day strapped into a wheelchair, and returned to her cell each evening. She is bright and inquisitive, but little does she know that she is being brought up for a particular purpose.

It is clear from the very start that The Girl With All The Gifts is not set in the world we know; though recognisable with mentions of London and other towns, unfamiliar names such as Beacon and Region 6 place it into a dystopia setting before we see outside Melanie's daily routine. It is implied that Melanie and her classmates may not be exactly human, and they are feared by the adults around them, but the novel is slow to reveal exactly what has happened to the world and its people. (Unfortunately, the review blurbs on the cover give a little too much away with their comparisons to other series.) The first act was my favourite part of the story, with its small pieces of information hidden in Melanie's everyday life asking more questions with each one answered.

But this new version of normality does not last long. Disaster strikes, and the second act shows a small group of survivors on the run in a post-apocalyptic England: Sergeant Parks and Private Kieran Gallagher, Dr Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, and Miss Helen Justineau, former teacher to the strange children. And of course, at the group's heart, feared by some, the hope of others, is Melanie.

The two women, Miss Justineau and Dr Caldwell are portrayed in sharp contrast with each other. Miss Justineau is kind-hearted and idealistic, while Dr Caldwell's approach is cold. Her task is important for the human race's survival, and she is prepared to take any action for the greater good, no matter how morally repugnant. At first, when seen through the infatuated Melanie's eyes, Miss Justineau is the heroine, while Dr Caldwell fills the role of villain, but The Girl with all the Gifts does not show a clear black-and-white morality. Miss Justineau is certainly more sympathetic throughout, yet when the fate of humanity is at stake, I came to understand, if not approve, Dr Caldwell's approach as well. Her research gives the familiar narrative a scientific twist, making this book stand out from the rest of the genre.

Greek mythology recurs throughout the novel, in particular, Melanie's favourite tale about Pandora's Box. "The girl with all the gifts" is a direct translation of Pandora's name, and its relevance is revealed in a shocking plot twist at the end which left me completely taken aback, stunned and perhaps even feeling a little betrayed, but I quickly realised it was the perfect ending for this story.
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