Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz comes the must-read thriller of the year, perfect for readers of dark psychological suspense and modern classics of mystery and adventure.

Bibi Blair is a fierce, funny, dauntless young woman – whose doctor says she has one year to live.

She replies, ‘We’ll see.’

Her sudden recovery is a medical miracle.

An enigmatic woman convinces Bibi that she escaped death so that she can save someone else. Someone named Ashley Bell.

But who is Ashley Bell? And what exactly does she need saving from?

Bibi’s obsession with finding Ashley sends her on the run from threats both mystical and worldly, including a rich and charismatic cult leader with terrifying ambitions.

 

I like Dean Koontz writing, especially the Odd books.  It’s  difficult to write about the books, though, partly because the plots are, well, fantastical but also because you either get them or you don’t.  Certainly, it  wouldn’t do to summarise the plot for fear of offering up way too many spoilers.
There are people I know who can’t bear the overt religious symbolism in his writing, though that’s never especially got in the way for me.

Koontz lives and writes of the world between reality and fantasy, between dark horror and bright light. In Ashley Bell, he follows this same pattern much as you would expect, though with a slightly lighter touch than in some of his works. There is, of course, tension and malevolence, but it is threaded through with a gentler exploration of self-awareness and imagination.

There is humour and some interesting playing with names that I enjoyed, including a very nice tribute to Patricia Highsmith, but overall, this is not a satisfying book.

I got quite caught up in the beginning, where Bibi Blair is visited by death, aged 22. And I enjoyed learning about her early life and inclinations and the people she knew and how her experiences had led her to become a published writer. Koontz plays with themes of writers and writing throughout the book – there are some rather nice observations on the frustrations of writers whose characters won’t behave the way the writer wants them to, and some rather lyrical writing.

This is, ultimately, a story about love and redemption and the power of story telling and imagination. I liked some of the characters and their relationship to and love for love for Bibi.

But it’s weakness lies in in the plot construction and the device that is ultimately quite unsatisfying that explains what has been going on in Bibi’s world.

Not his best book, though I remain an admirer.

Ashley Bell is published by HarperCollins on 14 January 2016
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The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

This is a life told back to front.

This is a man who has lied all his life.

Roy is a conman living in a small English town, about to pull off his final con. He is going to meet and woo a beautiful woman and slip away with her life savings. But who is the man behind the con?

What has he had to do to survive a life of lies?

And who has had to pay the price?

 

Roy Courtnay is not a nice man. As we meet him for the first time this somewhat older man is is preparing to meet yet another in a list of women he has encountered through dating websites.

It is obvious from the start that he has little interest in developing a relationship with loving feelings; rather this is an amoral conman targeting the next victim in line.
Betty is looking for companionship. Comfortably off, she meets Roy and they get on well. While neither would suggest they are in love, their short courtship gives them enough to lead them into thinking they can make a go of things. They believe they are sufficiently compatible and agree to an arrangement that sees Roy move in with Betty and take up the role of man of the house, if not the bedroom.

Betty’s nephew, Stephen, isn’t sure about Roy, and Roy reciprocates that feeling, but Betty is seemingly content.

At this point, we start to learn a lot more about Roy’s life and history. It is clear he has led a fascinating life, in England and on the continent. He’s been involved in many scrapes and brushes with the law and clearly his moral compass is way off the map.

We learn about Roy’s career as a minor Civil servant and his military career through the Second World War. Betty is told nothing of his past, bar the fact that he has a son in distant parts who he never sees.

As the novel unfolds, and as we learn more about Betty’s history, it becomes clear what the force is that holds this unlikely couple together and how the story is likely to pan out.
I won’t post spoilers, though it is does become very clear about half way through how the book will end. In that sense, I don’t think it is right to call it a psychological thriller.It is though, a well written book about an unsympathetic character who learns that the past will inevitably catch up with you.
Perhaps because of this lack of morality and the coldness of the character, I didn’t warm to this book and for me  there was a middle section that was both too long and too opaque.
The central storyline is, however, a good one and tells a dark and brutal story yet still manages to bring warmth and humanity to the forefront in the end.
Worth reading, but for me a three star read.

The Good Liar is published by Viking on 14th January 2016

Lost Girls by Angela Marsons

Two girls go missing. Only one will return.

The couple that offers the highest amount will see their daughter again. The losing couple will not. Make no mistake. One child will die.

When nine-year-old best friends Charlie and Amy disappear, two families are plunged into a living nightmare. A text message confirms the unthinkable; that the girls are the victims of a terrifying kidnapping.

And when a second text message pits the two families against each other for the life of their children, the clock starts ticking for D.I. Kim Stone and the squad.

Seemingly outwitted at every turn, as they uncover a trail of bodies, Stone realises that these ruthless killers might be the most deadly she has ever faced. And that their chances of bringing the girls home alive, are getting smaller by the hour…

Untangling a dark web of secrets from the families’ past might hold the key to solving this case. But can Kim stay alive long enough to do so? Or will someone’s child pay the ultimate price?.

In Lost Girls, D.I.Stone takes on a double kidnapping of 2 young girls, knowing that a similar case, where she was not involved, led to a disastrous outcome. Charlie Timmins and Amy Hanson had been swimming and were snatched from the leisure centre  before they got home. Charlie’s mother, Karen Timmins, knew Kim from childhood when both were in the care system, and is determined that Kim is the only one she will trust to lead the investigation.

Two families, close friends, end up pitted against each other by the kidnappers whose sadistic text message offers the chance of saving the girl whose family will bid the highest amount to do so.

These are brutal killers and the families are tortured by the loss of their girls and by their fear over what the outcome will be. It is not long before the tensions start to bite and they are all at each other’s throats.

D.I. Stone and her team move in with the families and begin working round the clock in an atmosphere that feels quite claustrophobic and very tense – something Marsons conveys really well.

Stone is completely driven and throws everything she has into trying to find the girls together with her sidekick, Bryant who knows her very well and understands what drives her. Hostage negotiator, Matt Ward, starts as a big thorn in her side but proves to be quite an interesting character and I’m hoping he may reappear in subsequent books.

Tough, single-minded and ruthless, Stone is hardest on herself, but thinks nothing of threatening the local crime reporter, Tracey Frost when it seems she is getting in the way.

As Stone gets closer to the kidnappers there are twists and turns in the plot that add to the suspense and keep the reader guessing.

This is a well plotted book with strong characterisation, dramatic tension and some excellent villains.The ending was slightly weaker than I had expected, but nevertheless I think this is a really good read and I enjoyed it.

I had not read either of the first two D.I. Kim Stone books, but on the strength of this one I will now go back and do so.

Lost Girls is published in paperback by Bookouture on November 6 2015

Silenced by Anne Randall

He buried his victim alive. And now he’s escaped from prison and is on the run in the city.

Fiona Henderson, the daughter of the victim who’d descended into a world of silence following her mother’s murder, has gone missing. Her sister Annabelle scours the city in a desperate attempt to find her. And then the body of a homeless person if found among the rubbish in a deserted alleyway.

As DIs Wheeler and Ross investigate, more suspicious deaths occur and a pattern emerges: the victims are all homeless. And so the police are pitched against a killer who is hellbent on a mission to rid the streets of the vulnerable and dispossessed.

As Wheeler and Ross descend further into Glasgow’s netherworld, their investigation reveals not only a flawed support system for the disaffected, but also a criminal class ruthlessly willing to exploit them. A city of double standards, where morality is bought and sold.

But it’s when the killer begins stalking DI Wheeler, that she and Ross realise that the threat is now personal.

I was sent this book by the publisher, very kindly, as I was in the midst of moving house and therefore could not commit to reviewing around the time of publication. In the event, it was just as well I didn’t commit, as the move turned out to be stressful and complex, and I’m only just recovering.

Silenced is the second in the series of the Wheeler and Ross crime novels. The first book, Riven was written under The name of A.J. McCreanor. I have not read Riven, but Silenced works perfectly well as a stand alone novel.

There’s no doubt that Randall knows her Glasgow very well. Her descriptive passages, especially in the Prologue and opening chapter, are very vivid, almost overwritten in that lovely noir sense and evocative of the underbelly of the city.

Mark Haedyear is a notorious killer, doing life for the abduction and gruesome murder of Amanda Henderson. Whilst on compassionate leave to attend his mother’s funeral, he does a runner from the crematorium.

D.I. Kat Wheeler and Acting D.I.Ross are on the hunt but it isn’t long before a dead body shows up on the streets. Cameron Craig was homeless and living rough. Beside his body is a card for a local group with spiritual overtones whose members work with the homeless community.

Meanwhile, Fiona Henderson, the daughter of Haedyear’s first victim is herself living on the streets. She has been mute since her mother’s murder. She is estranged from her father and in sporadic contact with her sister, and it is clear she does not want to be found.

Is Craig a victim of Mark Haedyear, or is there another killer targeting the homeless and those who work on the streets? Why is Fiona in hiding and what is her link to the victim?

As Wheeler and Ross look for their serial killer, he finds them, and Kat receives communications that are chilling in their narcissism and speak to his needs to communicate  – especially with Kat.

There is some nice personal interplay between the two detectives and we learn a little about their personal lives and preferences.

This novel is set amongst the poor, the dispossessed and those who prey on them; a crime novel with rawness and grit, worthy of the tartan noir appellation. Criminals, prostitutes and drug addicts form a network and Randall uses that to play with notions of justice and escape.

Well plotted,it is satisfying to see how the links between characters all tie together as the story reaches its conclusion.

I did work out who had ‘dunnit’ but not til quite near the end, which is always satisfying.

All in all, a good read.

Silenced was published by Constable on 3 Sept. 2015

Time of Death by Mark Billingham

The Missing
Two schoolgirls are abducted in the small, dying Warwickshire town of Polesford, driving a knife into the heart of the community where police officer Helen Weeks grew up and from which she long ago escaped. But this is a place full of secrets, where dangerous truths lie buried.

The Accused
When it’s splashed all over the press that family man Stephen Bates has been arrested, Helen and her partner Tom Thorne head to the flooded town to support Bates’ wife – an old school friend of Helen’s – who is living under siege with two teenage children and convinced of her husband’s innocence.

The Dead
As residents and media bay for Bates’ blood, a decomposing body is found. The police believe they have their murderer in custody, but one man believes otherwise. With a girl still missing, Thorne sets himself on a collision course with local police, townsfolk – and a merciless killer.

Tom Thorne returns in a chilling mystery that will keep readers guessing until the final page. Time of Death is Mark Billingham’s most timely, atmospheric thriller to date.

This book, the latest in the DI Tom Thorne series, sees D.I.Thorne and his and his partner, DS Helen Weeks, weekending in the Cotswolds on Valentine’s weekend as Helen drags Thorne into the country for some much needed r&r.

But while they are there, Helen sees a report on TV of a crime that has taken place in her home town, Polesford, a place she detests. Despite this, she knows she needs to go back, because Steve Bates,the man accused of kidnapping two 15 year old girls, is the husband of an old classmate and friend of Helen’s, Linda Jackson.

Of course, Thorne goes with her – mostly because he’s not a great lover of rural life, but also because he is intrigued.

In his usual gruff fashion, Thorne sets about finding out about the crime, getting up the noses of the local force as he does so, especially the sharp suited D.I Tim Cornish, an officer convinced that the obvious answer is the right one.

Helen, meanwhile, is helping Linda to deal with the massive impact of Steve being accused of these crimes.

Then one of the girls, Jessica Toms, is found dead and Steve is charged with her murder. Does Linda really know the man she lives with? Not as much as she thought she did, it transpires.

But as Thorne investigates more, he is increasingly of the view that there’s something not right with the case. He calls in his friend, pathologist Phil Hendricks, to help him solve the puzzle that is the timeline of the girl’s death. Thorne hopes that if he can work out what happened, he will stand a chance of finding the other girl, Poppy,still alive.

What is less clear is quite why Helen is driven to help Linda, but as the book develops, her motives become much clearer, and when she finally reveals to Thorne quite why she hates Polesford as much as she does, her revelations help clarify the motivation behind these kidnappings.

As the residents of Poleford turn against Linda and her family, helped by the intense media focus, the secrets and lies of Poleford are slowly

As a police procedural, this is a fairly perfunctory case, with a startlingly quick denouement, but the characterisation is strong – especially the quirky pathologist and the descriptive atmospherics of the locale and the hostility and gossip laden environment is sharply observed.

The Tears of Angels by Caro Ramsay

Past crimes cause new murder in this tense and twisting psychological thriller

A few days before the summer solstice a 92-year-old woman is found burned to death in her home. On the same day, a man’s mutilated corpse is discovered in a field, his arms ripped from their sockets, a Tarot card depicting The Fool inserted in his mouth.

When the victim is identified as someone for whom the police have been looking for almost a year, detectives Anderson and Costello find themselves caught up in a case where nothing is as it seems. Was the dead man really responsible for three child murders? And what is the connection with the death of the elderly woman?

The investigation leads to the tranquil shores of Loch Lomond where Anderson and Costello will finally uncover the shocking truth.

I was prompted to read this book after listening to Caro Ramsay at Bristol’s Crimefest where I found her to be both interesting and knowledgeable on the subject of psychopaths. And there’s no doubt that you do get an awful lot of book for your money!

There is in depth characterisation, thorough plotting and Ramsay cleverly interweaves the story lines until they come together into a satisfying whole. This is the 4th in her Anderson and Costello series, and it worked perfectly well for me as a stand-alone novel (though I will now be going back to read the other three). Set in Glasgow and in an off the beaten track location by the shores of Loch Lomond, near Balloch, The Tears of Angels is an engrossing police procedural. In Glasgow, an old lady is burned to death in her home.

Elsewhere, a man’s body is found in a field, mutilated in a quite disturbing fashion. Each body has a black tarot card though it’s unclear whether anything else links these two victims. Then the police believe that they have identified the dead man as a wanted suspect, Warren McAvoy, who has been successfully eluding their grasp for over a year.

On the shores of Loch Lomond, tragedy has struck more than once. The three families that used to regularly holiday there during the summer solstice, suffered tragic loss when three of their children were killed – and the disappeared Warren McAvoy is the chief suspect. The media are all over the discovery of McAvoy’s body and the deaths of the children now are at the top of their agenda again.

Questions are being asked about the police’s competence in the investigation. Elvie McCulloch works for a PI firm that was hired by Warren’s estranged American father to find his son. She is also contacted by a young girl, Amy Lee, from Canada who is looking into her grandfather Bert’s Scottish roots as a genealogy project for school. She asks Elvie to help her with her project. Anderson and Costello begin the task of investigating these crimes and in so doing they need to re-investigate the deaths of the children – it’s clear that all these crimes are connected.

This is where Ramsay excels. She takes an intricate plot and slowly, through many twists and turns, she reveals how each piece of the puzzle finally fits together. Her characters are flawed with very real human foibles and the key players all have their own domestic issues to deal with, not least of which are many fractured relationships.

As the tarot cards begin to turn up with increasingly regularity, it is clear that revenge is top of the killer’s agenda. But is this vigilante behaviour or something more sinister? Ramsay takes us on a fast paced and complex journey during which many more bodies are found and the quiet peace of Loch Lomondside is ruptured by death and devastation once more. The Tears of Angels combines excellent characterisation with deft and detailed plotting to produce a police investigation that enthralls and keeps you guessing right to the end.

The Tears of Angels is punished in paperback on 1st September by Severn House

Meeting Marnie Rome – guest post by Sarah Hilary

no+other+darkness+pb

I reviewed Sarah Hilary’s No Other Darkness here at the beginning of January. I said then that I doubted if I would read a finer crime novel this year and so far that holds true.

So I am really chuffed that Sarah has written a post for this blog, as part of her blog tour, on her protagonist, D.I. Marnie Rome. Marnie is a really interesting character, and it was a genuine thrill to meet her in Sarah’s first book in the series Someone Else’s Skin (winner of the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year). If you haven’t, I’d urge you to read both books.

Meeting Marnie Rome
Sherlock Holmes, Tom Ripley and Clarice Starling all play a part in how I write Marnie Rome. Sherlock got in first, whispering in my ear when I was ten, about the appeal of a hero with hidden depths. Tom Ripley convinced me that a good character could be bad. But it wasn’t until I read The Silence of the Lambs and witnessed Clarice Starling’s unique brand of courage, full of very human cracks, that inspiration really took hold.

Looking back, it all seems terribly logical; all roads led to Marnie Rome. But there was a time when I didn’t know she existed, and a time when I thought she was a straight-die detective without secrets of any kind. Perhaps there was a clue in the way she arrived (in a story that came before Someone Else’s Skin): biker-booted, hiding behind contact lenses. It took a bit of digging to scratch beneath her surface. Marnie doesn’t give up her secrets easily and she has a talent for surprising me, which I hope means she surprises readers, too.

I don’t believe in characters who ‘write themselves’. Sooner or later you have to sit down and write them yourself. But Marnie has a habit of standing at my shoulder as I write, and shaking her head when I get stuff wrong (like the time I was about to give her a third cup of coffee and she pointed out that what she actually wanted was a Peroni). Conan Doyle ended up hating Sherlock Holmes, which doesn’t usually happen unless your character has taken on a life of his or her own.

Marnie can be prickly, single-minded, even cagey. But as she proves in No Other Darkness, she’s also very compassionate, human and unique. Flawed, yes, but in all the right ways. I like to think she and Clarice Starling would get on a storm.

Sarah Hilary

sarah hilary

(Sarah Hilary pic courtesy of Guardian newspaper)

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

With a missing girl in the news, Claire Scott can’t help but be reminded of her sister, who disappeared twenty years ago in a mystery that was never solved.

But when Claire begins to learn the truth about her sister, nothing will ever be the same.

I’m a big fan of Karin Slaughter’s work, especially her Grant County series. Pretty Girls is a stand alone novel and it is a very dark and intense read.

Violent and dealing in horrible degrading crimes, this is nevertheless a gripping and emotional novel.

Claire Scott’s sister, Julia Carroll, has been missing for twenty four years, and she never fails to notice when similar missing girls  cases are reported in the news. Claire has lost a great deal in her life, some, but not all of it as a result of her sister’s disappearance. In many ways that disappearance has shaped all of her life choices since then.

Then, suddenly, after a pleasant evening, her husband Paul is stabbed to death in an alley in front of her.

She comes home from the funeral to find that she has been the victim of an attempted burglary, and that both the police and the FBI are waiting for her. As if that were not enough, her husband’s business partner is urgently looking for some files he needs. But when Claire goes into Paul’s computer to look for the files, the bottom drops out of her world and she no longer knows who she can trust or what to do.

Pretty Girls is a story told from three perspectives. Extracts from diaries written by her father show the extent of the impact of Julia’s disappearance on the wholen Carroll family. Her father’s diaries chronicle the extent he went to in trying to find out what happened to Julia but also show the devastating impact that her disappearance had on the whole family.

The book is compulsive reading, despite its very dark and extremely disturbing crimes. What engages the reader is the relationship between Claire and her sister, Lydia and now these two women take their fragile relationship and build it into an unbreakable bond through the very worst adversity. Interestingly, Claire, as the central protagonist isn’t always likeable and certainly isn’t a paragon of virtue. This makes you like her just a little bit more than you otherwise might.

Not for those with a weak stomach, but a strong and compelling read.

Pretty Girls is published by Cornerstone Digital

The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne by Andrew Nicoll

Let me start, dear reader, with a declaration of interest. I have known Andrew Nicoll for over 20 years. I know him, though it is more than 10 years since I have seen him, in his capacity as a political journalist and from the days when I communicated professionally in Scotland for my living. So I know him, and I like him.

None of that would influence my review, save, perhaps, to make it a little kinder were I to dislike his work.

Happily then, I don’t have to search for my kindness gene, for with this book Andrew has turned an old story into the most delightful prose and has created a book which I read in two sittings flat.

For this book, Nicoll turns to a tale set in his own back yard – the genteel Broughty Ferry, just outside Dundee. And how beautifully he brings it to life. A small town in which the Chief of Police is a big fish, where the lower classes go unremarked by those of a higher social profile and where the local sergeant, who is the narrator of our tale, sees all those he encounters in his daily work as his ‘flock’.

A lady of slightly uncertain years who resides alone in a grand house and is certainly not short of money is found brutally murdered. From there, the tale is one in which the police set out to find the murderer, the motive and the means.

Nicoll triumphs in the beautifully written detail of these lives as he explores the hitherto secret life of Miss Jean Milne, those she encountered and finds suspects and witnesses -almost too many of the latter to countenance.

Here, too are the beautifully observed politics  and aspirations of small town life and all the suspicions and neuroses of those who regularly come into contact with bigger, neighbouring cities. The bones of a real murder mystery are taken and re-shaped to tell the story in a way which keeps the facts accurate, but which fleshes out the characters and takes you with them on their journey.

The tale is told in a way which slightly makes me think of a Fred Vargas novel (that’s a compliment, by the way). There is such a beautiful, lyrical quality to Nicoll’s writing – in all his novels – that it never fails to lure you into his enchanted world.

Anyway, I loved it, and I think you will, too.

The Secret Life and Curious Death of Miss Jean Milne is published by Black and White Publishing.

It’s currently on Amazon for kindle at the incredible bargain price of 49p. Go on – take a chance – you will not be sorry.

Half The World Away by Cath Staincliffe

I’m happy to be participating in the blog tour for Cath Staincliffe’s new novel. My review is below.

Newly graduated photography student Lori Maddox spends the year after university travelling and visits China where she finds work as a private English tutor. Back in Manchester, her parents Jo and Tom, who separated when Lori was a toddler, follow her adventures on her blog, ‘Lori In The Orient’.

Suddenly communication stops and when the silence persists a frantic Jo and Tom report her missing. It is impossible to find out anything from 5,000 miles away so they travel out to Chengdu, a city in the south-western province of Sichuan, to search for their daughter.

Landing in a totally unfamiliar country, with no knowledge of the customs or language, and receiving scant help from the local authorities, Jo and Tom are forced to turn detective, following in their daughter’s footsteps, tracing the people she mentioned in her posts, interviewing her friends, colleagues and students. It’s an unbearably difficult challenge and, as the days pass, the fear that Lori is lost for good grows ever larger.

half the world away

Lori Maddox has just graduated in photography and wants to spend her new-found freedom travelling and seeing a bit of the world. She keeps her family and friends across her adventures through her blog, ‘Lori in The Orient’.

Her mother, Jo, was divorced from her father Tom some years ago and Jo is now married to Nick.Jo and Nick have two young sons. There is some tension in their marriage and Jo has to work hard to keep all her family happy.

The whole family enjoys Lori’s blog and they catch up with her exploits through e-mails and on Skype. Lori travels to Chengdu province in Sichuan, China where she quickly picks up some teaching work and is clearly loving her time there.

And then suddenly, it all stops. No more blog, no e-mails, no contact at all. And Jo and Tom are literally half the world away and growing increasingly worried about what can have happened to Lori. They report her missing, but cannot sit at home doing nothing while their daughter remains out of contact. So they set out for China to see if they can urge on the authorities and start to re-trace what they know of Lori’s movements.

But China is not a country which readily accepts foreigners and their bureaucracy is very different from that of a British police force. Jo and Tom do have the help of a British attaché to China, but despite this, the ways of working of the Chinese remain impenetrable to them.

So without much help, they set about the painful process of trying to find Lori by contacting the friends she has made and talked about in her blog and by retracing her movements. It is a nightmare scenario – in an unfamiliar country where the language and customs are very different to their own, Jo and Tom re-connect through their grief and anguish, fearing that Lori has vanished for ever.

The tension is heightened by Jo’s domestic circumstances and by the fact that every time they try to do something to help find Lori, they are warned not to interfere in the investigation by the Chinese. In the stifling heat, amongst the vivid smells and colours of an unfamiliar world they desperately stumble along trying everything they can to find Lori.

Half The World Away is a great read, and a scenario that is so easy to believe. The writing conveys extremely well the difficult emotions felt by Jo, Nick and Tom and the conflicts that arise from Jo and Tom’s decision to go and look for their daughter. This is not a ‘who-dunnit’ in the sense that the reader isn’t laid a breadcrumb trail to find the perpetrator of Lori’s disappearance. But it is an emotionally vivid piece of writing and one which, in the most subtle of ways, conveys that the title has more resonance than just geographical miles. Emotional distance is the theme underpinning the plot and this comes through in the fine writing.

I won’t offer spoilers, so can’t say more about the ending, except to offer the view that it isn’t really quite the end; there is more to understand and explore in this conclusion. An enjoyable and emotional read.

Half The World Away is published by Constable

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