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Bloodline (Star Wars)

3/5. Star Wars. Leia-centric Prequel to the new movie, telling the story of her loss of faith in the New Republic.

On the one hand, it's a Star Wars novel about a female character! On the other hand, it's clear that Gray was ordered from on high to hardly mention Luke, Ben, etc. to keep the slate completely blank for the next movie. That's, uh, really noticeable.

Anyway, I liked this, though I think Gray isn't entirely clear on how to write an adult novel. This book is about 40% galactic senate politics by volume, and it all has that smoothed over no nuance feel. Politics doesn't work that way. Parties don't work that way. Sentient politicians don't work that way. And more broadly, Leia Organa, veteran of the powerless Imperial Senate, doesn't become an us-or-them ideologue so bent on de-centralized government that she is with little exception incapable of working with those who oppose her views. I almost suspect that this whole thing is supposed to be a ham-handed commentary on the current state of American partisanship, but no, not quite.

Anyway, this is actually enjoyable, and makes sense out of certain things. But I still vastly prefer the Expanded Universe canon, which has a much richer view of the New Republic political scene. Of course, it has a billionty books to do it in, so.

However, props for the hilarious and sneering commentary on those people who "ironically" buy Imperial memorabilia. Empire hipsters. I die.
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Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch)

4/5. Last book in the trilogy. My enduring image from this book, and the series, will I think always be, three formerly-enslaved artificial intelligences sitting around a table genteelly sipping tea and discussing what they're going to do with their self-determination. I mean, there this series is.

I finally really like this series, with this book. I enjoyed the first but didn't go into raptures, and thought the second was oversimplified and disappointing. But this one is truly wonderful. It is deeply concerned with personhood and the functioning of complex power structures, but also flavored with Leckie's unique brand of light absurdist comedy. I mean, this is a book that manages to say things about alienation and outsiderness through an extremely weird running joke regarding fish, fish cakes, and fish sauce. I think I finally tuned my brain to the correct wavelength, or Leckie finally really hit her stride, or both, because this all finally clicked together into the weird, tipsy, anti-imperialist, seethingly furious mechanism that it is.

I still think the linguistic gender work is a bit of a misfire, magnified by the way recording audiobooks of this series requires an implicit commitment to gendering Breq, which is pretty terrible no matter how good the narrator is. But the effect of using the universal 'she' pronoun is lovely, even if it works less on a meta level the more I think about it. It obviously has a useful function in that it prevents the reader from automatically positioning people in relation to each other based on their gender. And I'm not even talking about heterocentrism here – you can't queer this narrative either, because there's no queerness. That's helpful in that it gets a lot of shit out of the way so that this power structure can exist on its own terms. But it could have done a heck of a lot more (why doesn't anti-imperial sentiment manifest in rebelling against the Radch concept of gender? Wouldn't there be radicalism in having binary and trinary and etc. gender paradigms? Just for a random thought).
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Six of Crows

4/5. Fantasy heist caper where the team of lowlifes and outcasts has to break someone out of the unbreakable prison, also politics.

"Caper" seems like the wrong word. Far too cheerful for this tense book that manages to balance grimdark with humaneness better than anything I've read in a while.

One of those books that I think is classified as young adult only because the protagonists are under eighteen. (Well, and because YA is often more lucrative). Because this is otherwise an entirely adult book about adult themes – the costs of survival, the rigged game of life when you don't hold power, being the dupe, being the one duping. I really liked this. The heart of this book is partly the heist, but it's mostly the team, and its interlocking sets of relationships, romantic and otherwise. It would be a wild oversimplification to say that this book is about hardened people coming to care for each other, because it is vastly more messy and satisfying than that. But if simplification you must have, there you go.

Oh, and did I mention half of the team is composed of persons with disabilities? Because it is.
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2/5. Orient, who can find things just by thinking about them, teams up with a cop in the town between faerie and reality to solve a drug case and murders.

And I'm two for two on finding Emma Bull books deadly boring. This one at least has an interesting setting and cast of quirky background townies; too bad about the main players, the plot, and, you know, everything else. Well, that's not entirely true – the lady cop is competent and layered and interesting, and why the book had to be about some dude instead of her is totally baffling. … No it's not. We all know why the book is about some dude.

Though, to complicate what I just said, I spent the last half of this book reading the narrator as an agender person. It's easy to do – he accepts male pronouns, but has otherwise almost zero internal sense of gender, let alone external gender signals. Is it deliberate? Is it just empty characterization? Who knows, but either way, reading it in did not make this the least bit more interesting.

Uh. It's currently $2.9 9 on Kindle, I feel obliged to mention.
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The Countess Conspiracy (The Brothers Sinister Book 3)

3/5. Historical romance. He's a controversial and successful scientist investigating inheritance patterns! She's the woman whose work is presented under his name because that's the only way it will be accepted!

Oh man, I'll say one thing for Courtney Milan, she always leaves me with a lot to think about.

This is almost awesome. It's full of things I like, including frank discussions of infertility, sex other than penis-in-vagina (this is quite rare in historicals), a network of women looking out for each other, female genius, difficult families.

But I just can't. If I wanted to make a joke out of it, I would say that I've never read a het romance during which I muttered "have these people never heard of anal sex?" so many times. (For real though, endless drama about how she can't ever ever risk pregnancy, so penis-in-vagina sex is really fraught even with birth control, but this is a het historical so even Milan won't go there). I could say that I found the extreme emotional pitch of this book way out of my taste. The hero and heroine have fraught, quavery-voiced conversations from page one to the very end, and it was just too fucking much.

But here's the real heart of it. This book is, as most people will conclude from reading the synopsis, about a kind of coming out. The heroine tells the truth about her work, eventually, to various people in various ways. And while the book does an . . . okay job presenting the social and familial consequences that come down on her head for it, the structure is enraging. It aligns the coming out with the heroine's journey to reclaim her self-worth and identity, and I hate these narratives. You know what I'm talking about, where a piece of media implicitly tells you that being in the closet is about the closeted person's issues, not about, you know, danger or fear of reprisal or privacy or or or. When done in queerness narratives, this sort of framing is poisonous. It's not much better here, in my mind, where a secret is kept to protect a woman from misogyny, but hey it's cool, she can bust the closet door down once she believes in herself. Because, as we all know, that's how you overcome misogyny. Aaaargh.

Whatever. This is a very good historical about mostly feminism, and it will not drive many people bonkers the way it did me. Also, it's on sale right now, if that's relevant.
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Foreigner: (10th Anniversary Edition) (Foreigner series)

4/5. A displaced colonial population of humans is forced to co-exist with aliens on an industrializing pre-spaceflight planet. Only one person is allowed to contact the aliens and act as ambassador and interpreter. He becomes entangled in local alien politics, and bigger things.

Wow, okay. This is my first Cherryh, and I came to it with an uninformed notion that she pumps out a lot of bland space opera. Wrong wrong wrong. This is strange and difficult, with a chilly interior landscape in ways that are hard to describe.

The first three-quarters of this book is, on the surface, very slow, consisting almost entirely of people drinking tea together and having a series of assortedly confused or awkward conversations. Then the book turns into an intense nail-biter of physical and emotional endurance. This turnabout is completely and fairly foreshadowed, mind, but I still wasn't quite ready for it. There's a richness here I did not anticipate. The foreigner of the title is the ambassador, the only human to appear in this book. The book is chiefly concerned with alienness of several kinds, the ambassador from his hosts and, ultimately, from himself. Cherryh is incredibly good at aliens here. She bypasses the physical almost entirely – these people are for the most part physically like humans, as far as we can tell – but that's just so she can put her finger on a more fundamental emotional and linguistic otherness. This book tosses out an alien word for an alien concept early on, and lets the reader come to several incorrect conclusions about what it means as the ambassador imposes his human ideas, catches himself at it, tries again, fails again. I'm not entirely sure I understand all of what happened here, but it was turning a lot of odd gears in unexpected ways, and it is supposed to be dislocating.

Clever, chilly, interesting.
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Faking It (Dempsey Book 2)

2/5. Contemporary romance. She's a gallery-owner and former forger. He's a conman. They meet in a closet while burgling the same house.

I so wanted to like this. And I did like it. Bad sex that gets better with work! People pretending to be law-abiding until they realize that they are both crooked and that makes them super hot for each other! Close communities of women! A cute dog!

But it was all so rape culturey, I just can't. JFC, he has sex with her while knowing she's not enjoying it, then gives her endless shit for faking an orgasm. Crusie has a really bad track record on exactly this issue, and I just. Yick. Clever banter does not make up for rape culture.
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The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth)

4/5. First in a . . . trilogy? About a land periodically destroyed by earthquake and resulting volcanoes, and the population that barely clings to life on it, and the few with the power to control seismic activity who are feared and enslaved for their gifts.

Excellent, depressing as hell. I was never more than lukewarm on the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. You know, those books that broke Jemisin's career open, and that it seemed compulsory to rave about for a few years there. Interesting, but never got me there, was my verdict.

This, though. It's another iteration of enslaved gods, in a way, but this one is tighter, meaner. Thematically, this book is all criss-crossed parent/child pairs of many sorts, actual and metaphorical. It's one of those books that centers women's stories without being about mothering, specifically, if you get me. It's clever and awful and compelling.

Points of interest: Queerness of several varieties, including genderqueerness and polyamory, are represented as part of the fabric of this story, without being particularly remarked upon.

Content notes: Various sorts of child harm, including infanticide by parent and . . . many other horrible things, come to think of it.
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The Blue Sword

2/5. Young woman is abducted by the king of a neighboring nation because magic tells him to, and then she gets a magical horse and then she magically becomes the best fighter ever in the course of six weeks and then she gets a magical sword and then she does magic things, the end.

Yeeeeeah, sorry, no, this bored me thoroughly. And it had me to start with, too; the opening quarter of this book is a slow, absorbing account of this young woman's introduction to a backwater military outpost, and there's a beauty to the way she falls in love with the desert landscape that everyone else just wants to escape. But then all the magic ex machina happens, and meh.

Also, the ethnic politics, yikes. Generalized spoilers )

But Light, you cry, I love this book and I read it a thousand times and you don't understaaaaand it.* Yep. That's right. I don't.

*Well, actually I think it's more like this book is of a different era and esthetic, and I was not in the frame of mind to read it as a historical document. I just wanted a damn book to enjoy.
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Mars Evacuees

5/5. Twelve-year-old girl is evacuated to Mars as the war with the aliens drags on. Then all the adults on the Mars base disappear.

Oh gosh, burble burble, this is woooooonderful. It's about war and fear of loss and actual loss and – go with me here – it is hilarious. The obvious comparison is The True Meaning of Smekday, which I also loved, and yeah, that's valid. Plucky and sarcastic kids accidentally reaching across the gulf of a species war to make a friend. But this book is also doing very different things. Like, in case this is relevant to anyone's interests, girls in space! Female friendship! Lady fighter pilots!

Also, this is going to make people who haven't read this book go "buh?" but the brilliance of this book, and the seriousness of it, are in its lightness. This book makes the education of child soldiers funny and endearing, okay, in a way that lifts you up and breaks your heart. It is this beautifully controlled but pell-mell first person narration, constrained by our narrator's youth and fear, illuminated by her irreverence. And it trips along, making you laugh and worry and laugh again. And then it stops, and takes a breath, a perfectly placed beat that makes you stop and clench your hands and say, oh very quietly.

It is just really, really good.
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4/5. Twenty years after a group of colonists follow a woman's post coma visions to settle on an alien planet, a surprise survivor born after the initial planetfall reaches the settlement. And then things start falling apart.

File this one under it was great. Never ever reading it again.

The narrator of this book – bisexual lady engineer in her seventies – is the sort of unreliable narrator who is mostly unaware of her unreliability. The first third of the book has that slow, creeping quality you get when this is done really well: you are following along, it's interesting, it's scifi, and then once in a while you go "wait…what?" And then you start to put things together, and the narrative pulls tighter and tighter, and the narrator's sense of overwhelming, impending disaster eats you up. This is one of the more terribly skillful renderings of someone with an anxiety disorder that I've ever read. And not just the narrator – her entire colonial society is gripped by it. So much so that I had to put the book down and walk away for two days in order to calm down. (I also nearly noped out of a huge huge public humiliation squick at a climactic moment, so take that under advisement).

So yeah. This is masterful, as psychological work. Psychological horror in some places. Not horror at mental illness, to be clear – the book is in other parts of its mechanism playing with some classic horror tropes, including Poe. The scifi elements are less successful, to my mind; I was frankly disappointed with that resolution in the last 5% of the book. It was reaching for something about the co-existence of religious belief and scientific belief, but it just didn't get there, I don't think.

Happy to supply specific spoilers/content notes in comments if desired.
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How to Howl at the Moon

M/M. A professional horticulturist, refugee from a betrayal, moves into a small town which just happens to be populated by shifters (dogs into people, not the other way around). And the sheriff (border collie, natch) thinks this guy is growing weed, so poses as a dog to investigate. Like…you…do…

DNF. This is fine! Some of you will totally dig it! I…could not.

I'm trying to be more selective about M/M. I mean, I have such a low hit-rate on this stuff, it gets depressing. So I've been trying to go with more friend recs. And this is good! Easton is competent and a little creative and funny in the right ways.

But oh God I cannot with this book. It turned me into a horrible person. It turned me into a victim-blamer. But for real, the horticulturist's backstory of being taken advantage of was pitched in such a way that I snapped, "oh for fuck's sake, how stupid do you have to be to get rolled like that?" Which is on me. What's not on me is the way this book likes his ineptitude, and the way it frames a sort of learned helplessness as attractive to the other hero. That is, like, the opposite of my buttons.

Read if you like dogs and, uh, presumably relationships where one person was briefly the other's pet? This book'll deliver on that.
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Love Is the Drug

4/5. A student at a near-future Washington D.C. prep school wakes up after a party with no memory of what happened to her, and with the world in the grip of a pandemic flu virus.

This, on the other hand, is wonderful, and deserves to be hyped a lot more. It's not really science fiction, more near-future sociopolitical thriller with some speculative elements. But the flu is not really the point, and the thriller plot is so not the point (if you haven't figured that out by a quarter of the way through, this may be the first book you've ever read). No, the point is the heroine, who is struggling with competing models of how to be black in America, and working through the use and abuse of power on her and by her, and falling in love with a drug dealer.

This is the rich, complex book that her Summer Prince fell short of, in my mind. Which is partly her – she got a little less overdramatic, a little more controlled. And partly about how I'm getting really sick of specfic books about race that have to take the world at several steps remove from ours to be about race. This book really doesn't do that; it's not about race "through the lens of" or about race "reimagined." It's about this black girl and her black family and her friends and boyfriends and what they do to survive. Fuckin' applause.
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A Darker Shade of Magic: A Novel

3/5. There are four Londons in four worlds, and only a few can travel between. One of those who can takes the opportunity to smuggle, and gets caught up in a complicated magical scheme.

Overhyped. This was entertaining enough, but you know I'm kind of bored when one of the main characters is a cross-dressing lady pickpocket who dreams of being a ship captain, and I find it overbaked and kind of tiresome. Points for later establishing that she likes menswear just for the sake of wearing a good suit, though, rather than the usual fantasy bait-and-switch where the lady cross-dresses but in the end just wants to be "herself" again or whatever.

Lots of people thought the hype was called for, so maybe I'm just cranky. Or maybe this is, at its heart, just bland.
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Penric's Demon

3/5. A Five Gods novella. Through (random?) circumstance, a rural lord's younger son on the way to his wedding unintentionally comes into the possession of a demon. Subject and object purposefully left unclear in that last bit.

This is a pleasing, if inconsequential little tale. Maybe I've just read too much LMB, but I understood pretty much everything about this story by a third of the way through and nodded along comfortably to the end. Our protagonist is rather unformed – as a person, I mean, not a character – which is a bit of a departure for this universe. The whole thing works a bit better if one imagines onself, the reader, rather like the demon in Pen's head: significantly smarter than him, and seeing a great deal more through his eyes than he does. But even those things were not terribly complex or interesting.

Still, comfortable and rather sweet. Good for completists, I guess.
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Crash & Burn (Cut & Run Series Book 9)

3/5. Ninth? . . . in this M/M series about the FBI agents. I'm not gonna lie, this (and the prior couple books) have been really disappointing, since they seem to fundamentally misunderstand what is good about this series. Namely: a sense of genuine hilarity, and tropes tropes tropes.*

Let's review the glory days. The second book brought us wilderness survival straining a tenuous relationship with – if my recollection does not fail me – actual huddling for warmth. Oh, and the third book gave us pretend-to-be-married and kept boy roleplay. The fourth book gave us temporary disability, but let's not talk about that. Oh but the fifth book, that gave us zany road trip with bonus hitmen. Ooh, and the sixth book is peak whacky, with bonus meet-the-family and cowboys, and a random tiger (trust me, it's funny).

Damn, this series was good when it was good.

And, I mean, I guess you could read the first book if you want (partners who hate each other but fall in lust), but eh, it's not the best.

*Though in its defense, this ninth book did have 'roleplaying dubcon to fool the cameras while actually having intense, consensual, kind of hilarious sex.' So that's okay.
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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

3/5. Telegraphist in the London Home Office is given a mysterious pocket watch which saves his life from a bomb. So he goes looking for the watchmaker, and finds a Japanese man with a secret. And a friend. And something else.

Okay, several of you guys are going to really like this one. I came close, but I was distracted by my initial misunderstanding of this book. I had the vague impression that it was a historical spy thriller with a supernatural thread. It's actually – and you'll note this is quite different – a queer philosophical romance with a supernatural thread. Whoops.

This is slow, thoughtful, atmospheric. Very concerned with gesture and the ticking of a weird, pretty mechanism at the heart. One character can predict human actions – he knows what you'll do as soon as you decide it. Which is . . . complicated, when it comes to loving someone you haven't met yet, based on the might be.

Anyway. It's pretty. And unusual. Not as clever as it set out to be, at least not to me, and I think Pulley didn't really have control of the dismount. But I've never read anything quite like it. And it'd probably help to know what it is going in.
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Children of Morrow and Treasures of Morrow by H.M. Hoover

3/5. Vintage (so vintage it's not even on Kindle) post-apocalyptic YA. Two pre-teens living in a repressive paternalistic micro-society run away, guided by the voices of other survivors they can hear in their heads.

So I think Children of Morrow might well be the first science fiction I ever read as a child. It's certainly the first that mattered. And it made a hell of an impression on me -- I've been looking for this book again for about twenty years. And here it is, with a sequel!

So anyway, this informed a lot of my narrative inclinations, I think. Probably filled the niche that Mercedes Lackey did for a lot of my peers in that this, too, is about the very special children who are isolated by their specialness and go on an arduous journey to find their true home.

I will say that, as a child, I didn't grasp the true creepiness of this world. It doesn't lie in the post destruction Northern California landscape, as I thought, or in the violence inherent in the society the protagonists flee. No, the creepiness is solidly in the home they flee to, which is cozily nonviolent . . . oh and also deeply and quietly oppressive. I honestly can't tell what Hoover thought she was doing here; much is made of Morrow's superiority in intelligence which, it is implied, explains its lack of gendered power structures. And which also underlies its, um, restrictive breeding program. Awk-ward. I honestly can't tell what is irony and what is genuine enthusiasm for a "better world." A lot less irony going around than I would like, is where I came down.

It's also amazing what you don't remember. I had zero recollection of the rather casual mention of a prior abduction and forced impregnation, I imagine because I didn't understand it at all (see also: Morrow is totally morally superior you guys, ahahahahah. Ha. Ha). The WTF faces I made when that came up were quite epic.

Points for nostalgia. And for the landscape, which pried open bits of my pre-teen brain that had never seen light before. And for young children of power. But yikes.
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3/5. A "research" space vessel is invaded by two "thieves", and the three-person crew is joined by an interrogator from the totalitarian solar system government bent on getting one of the captured prisoners to talk. Meanwhile, the ship computer is slowly coming to consciousness.

I'm being a bit unfair giving this a 3/5. What I'm really doing there is giving myself a bit of room, because this is a debut, and while it's really very good, I'm going on record now and saying that one of C.A. Higgins's later books is going to be a knockout. So I'm rating on that entirely speculative scale. It's a compliment.

This is tense and twisty and claustrophobic. The entire book encompasses the inside of a single spaceship whose every nook and cranny is under surveillance, populated by a cast of fewer than ten characters. Yet the story it tells – alternating between the mental duel of the interrogation and the increasingly desperate efforts of the ship's architect to understand what is happening to it –is also the story of a revolt against totalitarianism playing out in the wider solar system. The word "controlled" comes to mind when trying to describe this book. Maybe "poised." Not words I use for debuts very often.

The tension of this one lingers.
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69 books read in 2015, which is both sadly few, and typical. I'm kind of surprised I managed even that many, as I have cut my commute time significantly, and that was my major reading opportunity. It was a noticeably good reading year, though. I am trying to be better about choosing things I'll enjoy, rather than being a stubborn completist or insisting on giving a dud author another chance. And since October 1, I have been reading only women authors, and will continue to do so for another nine months. Thus far it has been more invigorating and interesting than my wildest expectations.

Anyway, notable books of the year:

Science fiction
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Read early in the year, and honestly, nothing quite compared.
Review here

The Goblin Emperor by Catherine Addison
N.B. Currently $4.99 on Kindle.
The kindest novel I've read in a while.
Review here

Most trope subversive
Earth Logic by Laurie J. Marks
I don't generally think about self-inserting, but I would visit this world. I would absolutely get married there.
Review here

Best childhood favorite rediscovered
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Twisty puzzle game with a sharp eye for people.
Review here

M/M romance
The Boy with the Painful Tattoo by Josh Lanyon
Third in a series of mysteries, but the point is the wonderfully difficult, cranky, ungraceful protagonist.
Review here

Most fun
The Royal We by Jessica Morgan and Heather Cox
The Fug Girls do royal romance. I'm into it.
review here

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Frothy but clever historical fantasy.
Review here

Single author collection
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
She just keeps being that good.
Review here

Themed multi-author collection
Sisters of the Revolution ed. Ann and Jeff Van der Mere
Okay, it's the only one I read this year, but it's a goodie.
Review here

Transformative work
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
I want to reread this, actually, and I almost never reread.
Review here

The one I'm still thinking about
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Review here

Young adult
Cuckoo Song by Francis Hardinge
This book messed with me, and I thanked it.
Review here

Younger than young adult
Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
Review here

Urban fantasy
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
Only a decade late, but yes. Also, made me bake for a month straight.
Review here

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Painful, necessary.
Review here


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May 2016



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