Cold Calls Makes Me Want To Hang Up

A Review of Cold Calls by Charles Benoit

Clarion, 2014

Cold Calls Charles Benoit

by REBECCA, April 24, 2014

hook

Three teenagers are each bullying someone at their schools. But it’s not because they’re bullies—or are they? It’s because they’re being blackmailed by someone else. Who are the villains when everyone’s a victim?

review

I read Cold Calls because the ARC cover touted it as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club and I was like: sold. If by Pretty Little Liars they mean that it involves cellular telephones and if by The Breakfast Club they mean that people from different social circles interact, then I guess that’s an apt comparison. The similarities end there, however.

Pretty Little LiarsThe premise is simple: three students from different backgrounds and schools—Eric (the jock), Shelly (the religious emo girl), and Fatima (the bubbly smartypants)—are each being blackmailed by a mysterious caller, each forced to tease a student at their school, dump macaroni and cheese on them, and then post the video to YouTube. In the anti-bullying program that they must attend, Eric, Shelly, and Fatima meet and team up to figure out who their blackmailer is, why he or she is blackmailing them, and how to stop it.

the-breakfast-club-netflixI’m not sure how else to say it: Cold Calls is dopey. Well, I do know how else to say it. This is a book that lacks any characterization; therefore it lacks any stakes because we don’t care what happens to any of the characters. There are the most rudimentary of backstories sketched for each character, which vaguely relate to each of their “secrets.” (Note: in case it isn’t clear, my use of quotation marks around SECRETS is meant to indicate that these things are TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Oh, god, book, look what you’ve done: you’ve gotten me so upset that I’m starting to use all caps.) Because of the complete and total lack of nuance or character development, these secrets are ridiculous.

For example, my reaction to finding out Shelly’s (which is supposed to be traumatizing to her): You cannot possibly be that stupid. No, seriously. Wait, but a.) don’t you have the ability to google anything; b.) weren’t you forced to talk to an adult in the last year; c.) no one is that oblivious. What I’m supposed to feel (I assume): oh, you poor thing; guilt and shame are terrible; I feel pity for you. Eric’s secret is obvious on page two and totally dull. The only minutely interesting thing in the whole book is what Fatima is going through, which is that (spoiler alert; it’s her secret) she’s Muslim but is having doubts about her faith and knows it would really hurt her family to find out.

Cold Calls takes up bullying, a subject central to both the current imaginary and the world of young adult fiction. The idea of bullies being forced to bully is actually rather interesting. For one thing, it engages with the fairly accepted notion that many bullies act out because of ways that they have themselves been victimized. This, then, is a literalization (if a clumsy one) of that premise. Did we need a literalization of it, or did we all already know this? My vote’s on the latter, but hey, I understand the impulse.

urlHere’s the thing, y’all. The book has no characterization, no voice, the prose is purely functional, the mystery is both uninteresting and sewn up all of a sudden (this is problem-solving and misdirection of the “hey, look over there!” variety). Thus, there are no stakes for the characters, no stakes for genre or prose. Lacking any of these stakes, the only stakes the book could have would be ethical. I mean, surely a book published by a major publishing company (Clarion is Houghton-Mifflin’s children’s imprint) couldn’t be published without some stakes. But, though bullying is the central issue here, there isn’t even a scrap of meditation upon the topic.

It’s not that I want some kind of moralizing on the subject; quite the contrary. But Cold Calls takes up the mantle of a complicated issue and flattens it into the blandest of plot sketches. I imagine that there may be an audience for Cold Calls, but I am most certainly not it. Lacking interesting characters, voice, a unique plot, and any food for thought, Cold Calls read like the thinnest of premises tortured into a novel-length exercise in going through the motions of putting one scene after another. Any one of these things might have saved it—interesting characters make me care less about a blah plot; gorgeous prose is a delight to read even if the rest isn’t great; an amazingly creative plot excites me enough that the characters needn’t be so extraordinary. But, no. As Gordon Ramsay would say (I have recently been watching Master Chef and Master Chef Junior, as I wrote about earlier this week): what a shame.

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Want some actual mysteries? Here are three!

Beautiful Lies Jessica Warman

Beautiful Lies by Jessica Warman (2012). Alice and Rachel are the rarest of twins—so identical that even their closest friends and family can’t tell them apart. When Alice disappears without a trace, Rachel knows that something is terribly wrong because, for the first time, she feels like their connection is broken. As the hours creep by, things become more and more unclear: what is real? where is Alice? and what secrets have the twins been keeping from everyone—and from each other? My full review is HERE.

White Cat Holly Black

White Cat (Curse Workers #1) by Holly Black (2010). Cassel is from a family of Curse Workers—they have the ability to change your life with a single touch—but he isn’t one. Cassel usually stays out of trouble, but when mysterious visitors come calling, it dredges up a past he’d like to forget.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). When Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes that are clearly written my someone who knows her intimately she thinks she needs to take action to prevent something horrible from happening. But who is sending her these notes? And how?

received from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review (thanks!). Cold Calls by Charles Benoit is available now.

5 Reasons You Should Watch Master Chef Junior!

Master Chef Junior

by REBECCA, April 21, 2014

First things first, because this is an elimination show, be careful of going to the homepage for the show because it’ll spoil the finale.

See that adorable, food-smeared child holding what looks like a restaurant-quality dessert? Well, whereas usually that would imply that the annoying child just shoved their face in someone’s beautiful dessert, in Master Chef Junior, it means they freaking made it.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you might be thinking: I hate reality shows about children because they are always either victimized by their parents’ ambition, or independent psychopaths who will surely grow up to be bullies and serial killers. HOWEVER, Master Chef Junior is not like that! My sister and I watched the whole thing a few weeks ago—it’s only seven episodes, so it’s a great mini-marathon show—and it is bloody amazing. So, here are five reasons why you should definitely check it out!

1. Expertise! There are few things I love more than watching people who are brilliant at something execute that thing well. I love cooking shows because you can see every step of what people do: you can see them brainstorm ideas; you can see them make mistakes and have to fix them; and you can see them receive feedback on them. I’m a pretty good cook/baker and I know there is no way I could ever be on a food competition show. I just don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of recipes or the time management skills to cook that fast. The regular Master Chef (a competition of adult home chefs) is impressive enough to me for both those reasons.

mc jr 4When the experts are children, it’s mind-blowing. These are 8-13 year-old kids and they are cooking at the same level as the adults on Master Chef. To see an eight-year-old with professional knife skills . . . well, actually, it’s a little creepy. But, no, it’s amazing. And it isn’t only that they’re experts on a technical level; they’re also incredibly knowledgeable about food, which allows them to create unique, diverse, sophisticated, restaurant-quality dishes. Y’all, it’s seriously amazing!

2. Competitors With Heart! In most competition shows—certainly in Master Chefthe competitors talk a lot of shit. They’re nasty and cutthroat and they refuse to acknowledge the talents of their competitors as if it could, in some way, lessen their own. Not in Master Chef Junior. Almost more surprising than the incredible culinary skill these kids have is their amazingly positive attitudes toward one another. They encourage one another, they say lovely things about each other’s work, they cry when competitors leave because they’re friends, and they help calm each other down when they’re stressed out. I think this was actually my favorite element of the show. I hate to sound all from-the-mouths-of-babes, but it’s incredibly inspiring to realize that at a young age, kids don’t just assume that they have to cut people down to elevate themselves. This also made the show so much more pleasant to watch because there was none of the yelling, complaining, and other garbage that so often goes with the truly amazing cooking.

131004masterchef-junior1_300x2063. Young Adults Rule! There is an episode where the contestants take over a restaurant and have to work in the kitchen, cooking all the food for the restaurant. It’s a real challenge because it’s not just about having the ability to cook. It’s about expecting 8-13 year-olds to work together, take instruction, delegate, move quickly, all of it while being yelled at. And, man, they are amazing. After the diners have eaten their food and raved about it, when those kids come out from the kitchen and they see who cooked it, you can see every one of those diners reevaluating everything they’ve ever thought about what young people are capable of.

4. Appreciation of Food! In a culture where kids are stereotyped as being either picky or addicted to junk food, it is so refreshing to see kids who are delighted by bok choy in a delicate ginger sauce or put fresh arugula on a cheeseburger. And it’s not only about whether these ingredients are to the kids’ personal tastes, but about the appreciation of each ingredient that they demonstrate. They work hard and truly honor food, showing how important it is to give kids access to fresh ingredients. I hope that every person in charge of school lunches, programs that bring food into neighborhoods and schools, and policymakers watch this show and see what kids can do when they’re given access to food and cooking instruction—even if that instruction is in the form of the Food Network.

jrmc_104-elim_03315. Self-Motivation! A few of these kids have family members who have restaurants, but most of them learned to cook from family members or they figured it out for themselves. When the chefs ask them if they’ve ever made things before, many of them speak about how they cook for their families three or four days a week. I love this approach to kids contributing to their families. Rather than just doing chores, this approach allows kids to explore their passions and also be responsible for providing for their families, whether they’re trying out gourmet dishes with exotic ingredients (for those whose families have access and cash) or whipping up homestyle comfort foods and elevating basic ingredients.

And, bonus, if you’ve ever seen chefs Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich on the regular Master Chef then you know that they can be exacting, blunt, and intimidating. To see them interacting with kids is at times funny and at times touching (Graham Elliot is as nice as always).

You can watch Master Chef Junior on Hulu HERE.

In the end, even if you’re not a fan of cooking shows in general, the show has a lot in common with YA novels I’ve reviewed that are about teens with obsessions and skills through which they express themselves or, sometimes, into which they escape. Here are a few.

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The Sea of Tranquility Katja Millay

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay (2012). Two people in pain who find each other and express themselves through their obsessions, Nastya through baking and Josh through woodworking. My full review is HERE.

With or Without You Brian Farrey

With or Without You, Brian Farrey (2011). Evan is used to getting beat up for being gay and used to having parents who don’t understand him. He can deal with all of it as long as he has an escape plan after high school and his painting. Evan has studied the techniques of all his favorite painters and he painstakingly imitates their styles in the expression scenes from his own life. My full review is HERE.

Interview with J.C. Lillis, Author of We Won’t Feel a Thing!

by REBECCA, April 16, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

Friends, enemies, and those totally indifferent to me, hello! It is my total pleasure to welcome the delightful J.C. Lillis back to Crunchings & Munchings for an interview on the heels of her sophomore release, We Won’t Feel a Thingwhich I reviewed on Monday.

GIVEAWAY: J.C. is offering one lucky reader a free e-copy of We Won’t Feel a Thing. The form is at the end of the interview. Thanks for joining us, J.C.!

REBECCA: The idea of two best friends/beloveds deciding to use a self-help program to rid themselves of their love is so awesome! How did you come up with the idea?

J.C.: Thanks! Yeah, it was inspired by an offhand comment a friend of mine made to another friend who was having a difficult time. He told her that her life would be so much easier if she just learned to engineer her emotions. And he was a scientist, so of course we started joking about it: “oh, watch him actually start his own Emotional Engineering program.” The David Kerning character and his WAVES program started to evolve from there, and then David bumped into Rachel and Riley, and the story started to cook.

REBECCA: One of my favorite things about the book is that Rachel is a grammar and syntax nerd. Being one myself, I was delighted every time Rachel mentally deleted an apostrophe or corrected a malapropism. Are you a grammar enthusiast? Do you have a grammatical, syntactical, or linguistic pet peeve?

J.C.: I am, but I’m definitely not as obsessive about it as Rachel is. If I passed by a specials chalkboard advertising “chocolate croissant’s,” I’d probably be able to keep walking.

Oh geez, I have so many pet peeves. I share Rachel’s hatred of “impact” used as a verb; say something like “the economy impacted sales” and all I can think about are problematic wisdom teeth. All business lingo rubs me the wrong way. Just these smug, snappy idioms people whip out like a secret handshake, to feel important—herding cats and making it rain and drilling down to the granular level. And this is a pretty common peeve, but I am forever raging about “it’s” in place of “its.” It’s become such an epidemic that even autocorrect sticks the apostrophe in, like SLOW YOUR ROLL, AUTOCORRECT. Let’s consider context, shall we?

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisREBECCA: Your first novel, How To Repair a Mechanical Heart, which I adored, found you creating a fandom. In We Won’t Feel a Thing, you create two different self-help programs. Can you talk a little bit about what appeals to you about creating these worlds-within-worlds?

J.C.: I love this question. I’m sitting here like “yeah . . . why DO I do that?” I think it’s because I’ve always struggled to feel like I belonged, and I’ve had very intense obsessions with things that sometimes aren’t appreciated by many others (in my fandoms, I’m forever the queen of unpopular ships). So the idea of a little society or system devoted to an obscure pursuit or interest has always been compelling to me. I’m also the kind of person who needs to feel in control of things, whether it’s my workload or my emotions or my body, so I’m drawn to characters who invent systems and strategies to impose order on the untamable.

 REBECCA: The love story in How To Repair a Mechanical Heart was between two boys. When I first saw the blurb for We Won’t Feel a Thing, I was a tad nervous because heterosexual love stories so often wind up reinforcing gender stereotypes. Not only did We Won’t Feel a Thing not do that, but Riley and Rachel’s genders also felt very fluid. I don’t mean to say that just because they weren’t stereotypical they were somehow unfixed; more that I was interested in the ways that it felt kind of like they could have been any combination of gender-identified people. What are your thoughts on this issue in general? Was gender something you were actively thinking about here?

don't gender me!

don’t gender me!

J.C.: You’re the second person who’s made that comment, and I love that you felt that way. Some of that was natural and kind of arose from the type of person I am. I’ve never felt especially feminine or masculine in the traditional sense. I remember I had this rag doll as a kid; it had no hair or clothing, it was just the outline of a person with friendly facial features stitched on. I loved this doll, and I remember feeling annoyed and unsettled when people would ask “Is that a boy or a girl?” I hated that I had to pick, because neither option really felt like the truth. To this day I’m always attracted to people who combine traits we’re conditioned to think of as “male” and “female,” and I think I live comfortably in that gray area, too.

So yeah, it was partly automatic, but I was also very conscious of the approach to gender in WWFaT. I think l’ll probably hear some of “oh, Riley’s the ‘girl’ in the relationship,” which—like you indicated in your review—is sort of reductive and stereotypical. I wasn’t really aiming for a straight-up gender-role reversal; I was more interested in depicting two young people whose personalities both color outside traditional gender lines. I mean, Rachel and Riley have been isolated in their private “kingdom” for a good bit of their lives, so I feel like they don’t even see those lines at all. That felt freeing to me as a writer. I think back to the very first fictional relationships that captivated me—like, Frog and Toad or Bert and Ernie. I don’t remember giving gender a thought; it was their specific personalities and their interactions that jumped out at me and made them special. I wanted to recapture that with the Rachel/Riley relationship. I’m glad it worked for you!

REBECCA: We Won’t Feel a Thing is your second novel, but if I remember correctly from your first interview with us, you had the idea for it a long time ago. What was it like to revisit an older idea? Was your writing experience different, having had a first novel under your belt?

J.C.: Yeah, these characters have been with me since like late 2003. (I’d written three other novels before that, all of which will mercifully never see the light of day.) I finished the first draft and then set it aside for a while—I was pregnant at the time and very anxious about motherhood, so I needed a break. I wrote about half of another book when my daughter was a baby, and then I got the idea for HTRaMH and decided to run with it.

That first version of WWFaT was wildly different. And at first, when I decided to go back and revise it, I was naively optimistic. I just thought oh, I’ve already put one book out there, so this’ll be easy. I’ll tighten the beginning, cut stuff here and there, tidy it up and get it out in six months. But then when I changed the beginning, everything started to change. I ended up keeping maybe 5% of the original text. In some ways it was even harder than starting from scratch, because it was this constant process of letting go of stuff I liked from version #1 that just didn’t fit or make sense anymore. Talk about killing your darlings. It was a darling bloodbath.

 REBECCA: You have a job and kids, right? How do you balance all that with writing? And what are the things that make you excited enough about a story that you want to make time for it?

J.C.: Oh man, it’s hard. It never stops being hard. I was just talking about that with a friend this weekend. A lot of times you feel like you’re doing everything, and none of it particularly well. Honestly, it’s just a “one day at a time” struggle . . . some days you manage to pull out a great idea at work and laugh with the kiddo at bedtime and write five good pages before you conk out, and other times the whole day’s just a wash. I think the key is learning to forgive yourself and be okay with the fact that your book might take longer than you hoped. Writer moms: It’s okay if you don’t write every day, or if you can’t write as fast as other people. You’ve got a lot going on. Years from now, you won’t look back and say “wow, I wish I’d gotten Book X out six months earlier.” You’ll only regret making yourself sick trying to work full time, be a mom, and still produce a book a year. Everyone works at a different pace, and that’s fine. Know what you can handle, and go easy on yourselves.

As far as staying passionate about a story—if you start with an idea and a character that make you vibrate with excitement, that’ll help carry you through the tough times in the Cave of Eternal Revision. If I get bored, sometimes I take whatever actors I’m crushing on at the moment and mentally cast them in my book, and that keeps it fresh and fun (and helps me hear the dialogue better, as a bonus).

REBECCA: Ha! I love that idea! Relatedly, I know a lot of our readers are also writers. You had great things to say about your experience with indie publishing in our last interview. Do you still feel as good about it? What advice do you have for someone writing books who may not want to go the traditional publishing path?

J.C.: I love being indie; I definitely think it was the right option for me and my weird little books. 🙂 You know, it has its pluses and minuses like everything else. Sometimes I feel a little frustrated by how difficult it is to spread the word about your stuff and attract new readers, especially when you have a shoestring marketing budget and another full-time job you’re committed to. I know there’s so much more I could be doing, and I always end up mad at myself: I should be tweeting/blogging more! I should’ve sent ARCs to more bloggers! If I just organized my time better, I’d have time for X and Y and Z . . .

But the reality is, none of us are superheroes. (At least I don’t think so. If you are, don’t tell; I might step on your cape.) I do what I can manage, and overall the whole indie adventure has been a tremendous experience. There’s nothing better than getting a tweet from a stranger who found and loved your book. I’ve managed to build up a nice readership little by little, and I love that I can still write back to every person who’s kind enough to reach out to me.

As far as advice: I’d say just put in the time to inform yourself about your publishing options, and if you decide to go indie, come on over to Twitter and join the writing community there. We’re a lot of fun, we’re generous with advice and support, and we’ve got your back. There’ll be tons of ups and downs as you figure out which choices are best for you and your book (because seriously, it’s different for everyone), but they’ll be much easier if you’re on the same roller coaster with your writer buddies.

REBECCA: Are you working on anything new (crosses fingers)?

AmadeusJ.C.: Oh yeah, I’m always working on something! Actually, I’m taking a short break right now—WWFaT took a lot out of me and I kind of just need a month to stare at a wall (and catch up on reading. And fangirl over Game of Thrones). But yes, I’ve got my next idea all cued up. It’s about female friendship, but it could possibly turn into romance, depending on where the characters lead me. It’s about the rivalry and deepening relationship between two ambitious pop-star hopefuls; I’ve been calling it Amadeus with young female singer-songwriters, though that’s probably too glib. The cool part is that Brandon and Abel from HTRaMH are going to be side characters. It’s set ten years after their Summer of Love, so you’ll see what’s happened with them in the interim and where their relationship stands now. I can’t wait to get started!

REBECCA: Aaaahhh! Amadeus is one of my favorite movies and I love anything to do with music! Um, oh my god, a Brandon and Abel sighting? I could not be more delighted! Thanks so much for joining us, J.C.!

J.C.: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.

WIN AN E-COPY OF WE WON’T FEEL A THING!

All you need to do is fill out the handy form below and then (for fun!) leave us a comment telling us which better describes you (and why, if you are so inclined). Are you: 1. A fierce grammar nerd, or 2. A sensitive (and possibly anxious) artiste? Or, since binaries are bullshit, 3. An evil genius who will someday engineer an insidious self-help program? The giveaway will stay open for two weeks; I’ll announce the winner here on April 30th!

UPDATE: I have chosen the winner of an e-copy of We Won’t Feel A Thing by a highly scientific process (writing your names on pieces of paper, dumping them in my cat’s favorite cardboard box, and then letting her choose one with her paw) and the winner is MIGUEL!

We Won’t Feel A Thing: A Different Kind of Love Story

A Review of We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis

Self-published, 2014

We Won't Feel a Thing J.C. Lillis

by REBECCA, April 14, 2014

I am delighted to be reviewing We Won’t Feel A Thing on the blog today. Check back on Wednesday, when the mega-delightful J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an INTERVIEW and a GIVEAWAY!

hook

Riley and Rachel are best friends who have just found out something horrible: they’re in love. With each other. But with Rachel headed for New York next year and Riley going to California, they know that all their love can lead to is heartbreak. So, they do what anyone desperate to fall out of love with their best friend would do: they sign up for WAVES, a self-help program that promises they’ll be back to just friends in six easy steps. But sometimes, as the blurb says, “when you fight love—love fights back!”

review

diagramming sentencesRachel and Riley are not only best friends, they live together with Riley’s parents and share everything—a room that’s partitioned only by a sliding door that is never closed, a clock with a ceramic mermaid queen and king, and one of those close friendships where you know just what the other one is thinking. Rachel moved in with Riley’s family when they were eight and they’ve been inseparable ever since. Rachel wields her red pen like a weapon, diagraming sentences into submission. “This was her favorite thing: caging an untamed sentence, pinning down subject and verb, making all the other words fall in line around them . . . She shot lightning bolts of prepositional phrases from her scepter.” (Note: so for-the-love-of-god excited for a character who corrects phraseologies like “you’ve got another thing coming”!) Riley is sensitive and anxious, most at peace when he’s working on his mosaics: “he always trusted that with work and time and patience, the thousands of pieces would mirror the picture in his head.”

cupcake of truth!

cupcake of truth!

Now, though, Rachel and Riley each have a secret to share with the other: Rachel that she’s gotten into college in New York City and plans for Riley to come with her, and Riley that his aunt has invited him and Rachel to come live in a coveted suite in her motel in California, a dream they’ve both had since they were eight. That afternoon, Rachel and Riley go with Riley’s parents to a DERT seminar—Dyad Enhancement through Revelation of Truth—and, after eating too many truth cupcakes, accidentally blurt out the truth: they are not just best friends, but also in love. THE HORROR!

Upon fleeing from the DERT seminar after this revelation, they run into another self-help guru, David A. Kerning (a delightful reference to the space between letters in typography—somehow the combination of Rachel’s editorial sense and Riley’s mosaics). David promises that with his experimental Forbidden Love Module, he can help them. “DERT is a menace, as you’ve seen. Fortunately for the world,” he says, “my collective and I have devoted the whole of our enormous brainpower to the science of destroying Gary Gannon and everything he stands for.”

Thus begins a hilarious and touching story of what happens when you’re willing to try almost anything to avoid the pain of love.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. LillisWe Won’t Feel A Thing is J.C. Lillis’ second novel. Her first, How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, was pretty much the most adorable book I’ve ever read, not to mention one of the awesomest explorations of how fandom can provide a vehicle for figuring out some deep-ass personal stuff. Like How To Repair A Mechanical HeartWe Won’t Feel A Thing is a love story set against the backdrop of passion for other things, delightful characters, and prose that made me laugh out loud (at work, where I was not supposed to be reading).

I am not much for your generic love story, particularly love stories about nice-looking, straight, white kids. There has to be something else in order for me to be interested. But here’s the thing: We Won’t Feel A Thing is not so much a love story as it is 1.) an exploration of how romantic love is based deeply in friendship, and 2.) an excavation of how truly terrifying love can seem. We Won’t Feel A Thing opens with a fairy tale: “Once there was a boy and a girl with a kingdom in their room.” Like all good fairy tales, this is the safe, comfortable world of prepubescence, where fantasy is make-believe and a boy and a girl can live together in peace. Also like any good fairy tale, with love comes threat: the terror of losing friendship, childhood, safety, and self.

This is such a threat, that Rachel and Riley (mostly Rachel—Riley follows her lead) are willing to go to any lengths to allay it. The book, then, is an excavation of their love in the form of an attempt to ameliorate it, a brilliant plot device that turns the love story inside-out, pairing each revelation of Rachel and Riley’s simpatico with their despair and frustration that it’s still there. This turns what could be a twee romance into an emotional adventure that strikes a perfect balance of comedy and drama.

mosaic waveJ.C. Lillis is the master of a particular kind of character + detail pairing that makes everyone in her novels feel alive. Rachel’s passion for grammar perfectly expresses her desire to control things around her, and the comfort she takes from knowing the rules that govern things and enforcing them. It is no wonder, then, that love—that uncontrollable and unwieldy force—would scare the shit out of her. Riley’s anxiety is explicit. “He told himself the fear was just one more entry in his Index of Senseless Worries, right after #378 (flash mobs), #379 (brown recluse spiders), and #380 (the dreaded DERT seminar they’d be marched to that afternoon).” Where Rachel breaks apart sentences to prove her mastery over their parts, Riley does the inverse: putting together disparate pieces of glass and ceramic to create something whole and beautiful. Their anxieties and coping mechanisms are in complementary distribution, and that is how their love works too.

Rachel gripped the waiter’s vest. ‘Did you know,’ she said, ‘that if you hooked my brain up with his brain, you’d be able to watch one long continuous movie of our life?’

‘How beautiful.’

‘I remember all the details he forgets. He remembers mine.’

‘You’re fortunate. Both of you.’

‘We are not. No no no.’ Rachel shook him by the lapels. ‘We’re extremely unfortunate. You have no idea.’

‘What’ll we do this year?’ Riley gulped the last of his coffee and poured another cup. ‘Who’re we going to be without each other?’

[The waiter] pointed heavenward. ‘You don’t believe you’ll be . . . reunited?’ . . .

‘We’re not sure of anything,’ said Rachel. Which was the truth.'”

As in How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, where Lillis created an entire fandom, in We Won’t Feel A Thing, she creates two self-help programs, both of which are quite funny. “Welcome to DERT!,” they’re greeted at the seminar by a cavegirl with a clipboard, “You’re late, so I’ve prejudged you as rude and selfish. May I have your consent forms?” And, “Thank youuuu . . . I hate your purse. It reminds me of my mother.” At dinner the next evening, armed with the DERT@Home box, Riley’s parents have a Splatter Session:

‘Is there any white bread?’ Mr. Woodlawn asked, taking a swig of strawberry milk . . .

‘I hate that,’ Mrs. Woodlawn said.

‘What?’ Mr. Woodlawn blinked, a forkful of peas midway to his mouth.

‘The way you ask me if there’s any bread, as if it’s somehow my responsibility to know.’ She drummed her hands faster. ‘Also, I hate that you drink strawberry milk. It’s emasculating.’

She balled up a pink paper napkin and tossed it at her husband’s face.”

strawberry milkIn a hilarious sub-plot, Riley’s parents embrace the DERT program of calling out truth with such aplomb that they end up in their basement, throwing mud and truth at each other. These scenes of his parents’ marriage breaking up are the backdrop to Rachel and Riley’s conviction that love can only lead to pain, but are also hilarious.

The last thing I’ll say about We Won’t Feel A Thing is how much I appreciate the gender dynamics here. One of the reasons I generally find heterosexual love stories unsatisfying is that they often go hand-in-hand with very stereotypical gender profiles. J.C. Lillis not only avoids this, but she has written, in Rachel and Riley, two characters who don’t need to be any one gender at all. It isn’t that gender roles are swapped (which still reinforces them), but rather that there are no markers of gender that matter here. Rachel and Riley like qualities about each other, and it’s those qualities that make up their characters. There were some murmurings on Goodreads when the blurb for We Won’t Feel A Thing first went up that people were disappointed because this wouldn’t be another queer love story, like How To Repair A Mechanical Heart. It is, though. It’s not a homosexual love story, but it’s a love story between characters full of queer potential.

We Won’t Feel A Thing is a delightful book, as well as a feather in the cap of independent publishing. I would put it up against any release from a major publisher in every category—prose, plotting, characters, cover, and copy editing (Rachel would be proud!). I cannot wait to see what J.C. Lillis comes up with next.

Remember, J.C. Lillis will be joining us for an interview and a giveaway on Wednesday, so join us then!

readalikes

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green & David Levithan (2010). Like We Won’t Feel A ThingWill Grayson, Will Grayson is a story that’s equal parts hilarity and heartbreak set against a backdrop of art and music that propel the plot forward. Tessa and I joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson HERE and HERE.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me (2009) and Liar & Spy (2012), by Rebecca Stead. Rebecca Stead’s latest two books share a certain quality with We Won’t Feel A Thing—a combination of true vulnerable sincerity and a sense of the absurd. Also featuring boy-girl besties, these middle-grade-ish reads capture a similar spirit. My full review of Liar & Spy is HERE.

How To Repair a Mechanical Heart J.C. Lillis

How To Repair A Mechanical Heart, by J.C. Lillis (2012). But of course you have to read Lillis’ first book, the story of Brandon and Abel, fans who set out on a road trip of Cons for the sci-fi show Castaway Planet and end up falling in love. It is a complete and total delight. My full review is HERE and our interview with J.C. Lillis about the book is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the author (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. We Won’t Feel A Thing by J.C. Lillis is available now!

5 Reasons I’m Provisionally Enjoying Star-Crossed (and a few reasons I’m not)

A Review of Star-Crossed, created by Meredith Averill

The CW, 2014

Star-Crossed

by REBECCA, April 10, 2014

Star-Crossed, as the title suggests, is a science fiction Romeo and Juliet. Ten years ago, in 2014, an Atrian starship crash-landed in a small town in Louisiana. Six-year-old Roman (Romeo) takes shelter in the shed of Emory (Juliet) when the shooting starts, and they form a bond in the few minutes before soldiers rip them apart. After a bloody battle, the Atrians are interned in a camp called the Sector. Now it’s 2024 and, as the result of an integration program that has long been in the works, seven teenage Atrians are going to begin attending a human high school, to test whether Atrians and humans have the potential to integrate.

romeo-and-julietSo, I’ve mentioned before how much I generally loathe adaptations. There is NO reason why this needed to be an overt Romeo and Juliet—in fact, it really hampers what Star-Crossed can do by telegraphing what are going to be the major issues and stakes of the show. I will say it again. I just do not understand why people cut off narratives at the knees like this?! In the case of Star-Crossed, it seems likely that either the CW thinks sci-fi is low art and needed a little cultcha or that they worried that sci-fi would turn off their core teen female audience unless they very overtly announced that it would be a romance. Either way, it was a stupid move. Also, can we please agree that, in 2014 (and definitely in 2024), Romeo and Juliet is really not the only text that comes to mind when we think about people from different worlds whose social situation dictates that they not be together. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché at this point—a story that’s concretized into utter predictability. So, yeah. WHAT THE?

Tami-Julie-friday-night-lights-4533494-2560-1920More bad news. Emory, played by Aimee Teegarden, aka Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, has the unfortunate fate of being a really boring character. No idea why they’re writing her like this when most of the other characters are more interesting, but Emory is completely blah and has no real chemistry with Roman, or with Grayson—yeah, sorry, they’re going with that whole love triangle thing, at least for a little while. (Grayson is played by Grey Damon, also from Friday Night Lights, and another character, Zoe, is played by Dora Madison Burge, who played Becky on Friday Night Lights, so while you’re thinking how boring Emory is, what a bad actor Grey Damon is, and how much makeup they’ve slathered on poor Zoe, you can just close your eyes and think of how good Friday Night Lights was).

That bad news aside, Star-Crossed has, so far, been a pretty enjoyable watch, if you go into it eyes open. I mean, it’s a CW show, so. Here are a few reasons I’ve enjoyed the first eight episodes.

1. Civil Rights Conversations. The morning the Atrian 7 start school with the humans their bus pulls up to the school where there is a mass of protesters who harangue them and throw things at them. It’s a citation of the morning the Little Rock 9 enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Little Rock 9 star-crossed

As in any aliens-landed-on-earth tale, there are people who believe that the Atrians are a threat to earthlings, those who are fascinated by their culture, and those in between. Emory and her best friends, Julia (a delightful Malese Jow, who played Anna on The Vampire Diaries) and Lukas (Titus Makin Jr. who was one of the Warblers on Glee) are excited to befriend the Atrians, but there are many who antagonize them from the beginning. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but, to my mind, any show that is having explicit conversations about the ways that fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to violence, which leads to retaliation, which leads to war, is succeeding, at least in some small measure.

The Atrian 7 disagree about what integration means, too. There’s one scene where the Atrian 7 are lectured about how they have to be a model minority, which some embrace and some revile. Roman, at one point, thanks Julia and Lukas for helping him and Lukas replies “We minorities have to stick together,” and Roman says, “You guys are minorities?” (they’re non-white); Lukas replies, “Before you got here.” So, there are some useful conversations going on, and I hope things will get more complicated as the show goes on.

2. The Atrians! Once you get over the fact that the Atrians look exactly like humans except for their tattoo-like birthmarks and the fact that they are all OVERLY ATTRACTIVE, the Atrian 7—well, we only know four so far—are pretty delightful characters. Roman (our Romeo) is played by Matt Lanter, who I’ve never seen in anything (though he did play Edward Sullen in a satire of Twilightesque movies that apparently exists?) but who I find strangely compelling. No, not just because he used to be a model. There’s something natural and straightforward about the way he plays Roman, which turns a character that would otherwise be chokingly goody-two-shoes into one who seems mature and interesting.

Teri & Drake

Teri & Drake

Sofia (Brina Palencia) is the wide-eyed, human-loving optimist who wants to make human friends because she doesn’t fit in that well with the Atrians. Teri (Chelsea Gilligan) is her opposite. She’s a fierce, badass fighter who doesn’t take any shit. Her mother is the leader of an Atrian splinter group that is willing to use violence to overthrow humanity. Last is Drake (Greg Finley), a bruiser who wants to be tough, but isn’t quite sure where his loyalties lie.

3. Plants. The Atrians’ main sources of power, as well as their main weapons, are plant-based, and one tribe of Atrians is particularly skilled in that regard. Cyper, for example, is a plant that can both heal and kill, and if humans found out about its properties when mixed with Atrian blood, they’d kill for it. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve decided that this was inspired by the centrality of herbs in Romeo and Juliet. Even if it’s not true, it’s an interesting choice.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.40.18 PM4. Pansexuality! In a show that is based on Romeo and Juliet and, therefore, pretty much tells us who the main romantic drama will concern, we learn that Atrians are pansexual, which at least opens up some possibilities for the plot going forward. I mean, we were all pretending that Roman and Drake were together anyway, right?

5. Star-Crossed. Come on. That’s actually a really excellent name for a show that is about Romeo and Juliet and aliens who came from SPACE! (I can’t think of a fifth thing that’s actively good.)

SO, have you all been watching Star-Crossed? What do you think? Do the good things make up for the dopey CW-elements, or will these violent delights have violent ends?

Noggin: You Only Live Twice

A Review of Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster), 2014

Noggin John Corey Whaley

REBECCA, April 7, 2013

hook

“Listen — Travis Coates was alive once and then he wasn’t. Now he’s alive again. Simple as that.

The in between part is still a little fuzzy, but he can tell you that, at some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to some other guy’s body, and well, here he is. Despite all logic, he’s still 16 and everything and everyone around him has changed. That includes his bedroom, his parents, his best friend, and his girlfriend. Or maybe she’s not his girlfriend anymore? That’s a bit fuzzy too.

Looks like if the new Travis and the old Travis are ever going to find a way to exist together, then there are going to be a few more scars. Oh well, you only live twice.” (Goodreads)

review

Noggin, John Corey Whaley’s second novel, is a perfectly executed book. Just because a book starts out with a sixteen-year-old getting his head chopped off and then sewn onto another dude’s body doesn’t mean that Noggin isn’t a sensitive-as-hell story of teen angst. Like most really good premises, rather, the head-on-another-dude’s-body is both the catalyst for an interesting plot and a metaphor for teen alienation.

phrenologyTravis Coates was dying of cancer. He’d been sick for a long time and was just about to give up when a scientist approached him about donating his body (well, his head) to science, suggesting that, in fifty or sixty years, when medical science had progressed, they could reattach Travis’ head to a healthy body and give him another chance at life. Travis, in an attempt to give his parents at least some hope that this wasn’t the end of the road, agreed. After all, what does he have to lose. Well, his head (yes, I’m going to keep doing that).

Instead of sixty years, however, Travis is brought back to life after five. So, instead of awakening to a world where he can actually start over, he finds himself back in his old life, only everyone else—his parents, his best friend, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Cate—has moved on.

So, we have the story of Travis’ reaction to being only the second human ever brought back to life through head reattachment and all its physical and social complications. And, alongside it, we have the story of Travis trying desperately to re-inhabit an old life that has moved forward without him, and finding, eventually, that he has to create a new one.

“It was sort of like my head had been photoshopped onto someone else. . . . Just so you know: yeah, shit got weird. Imagine most of you is suddenly someone else, and this is the first moment of privacy you’ve gotten. The weirdest part, I guess, wasn’t seeing my new chest or stomach or legs. It wasn’t turning around to see that someone else’s ass was there below someone else’s back. And, surprisingly, it wasn’t the moment I dared to just go for it and take a good, long look at my new dick. Sure, it was weird, but it wasn’t disappointing at all, to be quite honest. The weirdest part, truly, was realizing that I’d been doing all this . . . with hands that were different from my hands, with hands that had never touched Cate or knuckle-bumped with Kyle or opened my locker at school” (26).

Because Travis is sixteen, the people he most wants to see are Kyle and Cate, neither of whom contact him soon after he wakes up. When he does get in touch with them, we get some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the novel. For Kyle and Cate, it has been five years since their best friend died, so Travis’ reappearance in their lives stirs up some deep waters—including the fact that Kyle told Travis a secret before he died, thinking he would take it to the grave, and now Travis is back. For Travis, though, it’s only been a few days since he last saw Kyle and Cate, and their absence feels like they’ve been suddenly ripped away.

As Travis starts back at school again, he slowly rekindles his relationships with Kyle and Cate, who is now engaged to another man. Sixteen-year-old Travis’ attempts to win back twenty-one-year-old Cate’s affection feel incredibly real, including a great moment where Cate tells him to stop acting immature and he explodes at her, yelling that he isn’t being immature—he’s being sixteen.

Five years is a perfectly awkward time gap with which Whaley has cursed Travis, because the people who love him haven’t changed enough to start with him anew, but have changed enough that they cannot slide back into their relationships easily. And, though the voice of Noggin is quite funny, it’s a really melancholy story about how relationships change and the ways that we can neither rewind nor fast forward, but must each always live only in our present. As much as Travis wants to reconnect with the Kyle and Cate who were his dearest friends, he has to build new relationships with them if he hopes to have any at all.

Winger Andrew SmithWhaley’s prose is pitch perfect—snappy and funny and dripping in angst. Tone-wise, it reminded me a bit of Andrew Smith, one of my all-time favorite authors, and I have a feeling that Travis Coates and Winger‘s Ryan Dean West and Grasshopper Jungle‘s Austin Szerba would all be friends. Especially in the scenes where we see Travis’ life with Kyle and Cate before he died (the first time), Whaley does a great job of showing us why Travis would be so sad to lose friends like them, because they’re straight-up great.

In one amusing scene, Travis’ parents take him shopping for back-to-school clothes, since they donated his after he died, and Travis is confused by the skinny jean trend:

“These are pretty tight,” I said, walking out to model a pair of jeans for my mom.

“It’s the style.”

“I don’t understand. I can hardly move.”

“Do you want to try a bigger size?”

I tried the bigger size, and even though they were easier to button, they still hugged me all weird around the thighs.

“Are these girl jeans, Mom?”

“No, Travis. I told you. It’s what everyone wears now. Boys and girls.”

“We can just take him over to J. Crew and get him some more grown-up clothes, don’t you think?” Dad suggested. . . .

“He’s not a grown-up, Ray. He’s sixteen. He’s not going to school dressed like an accountant.”

“Yeah, Dad. I’ll go to school dressed in tight pants like a girl or I won’t go at all” (53).

When I say that Noggin is a perfectly-executed book, though, I don’t just mean that Whaley does a good job making the most of a cool and wacky concept (which he does). I also have to talk about one of his stylistic choices. The last sentence of each chapter becomes the title and topic of the next chapter. So, the last sentence of chapter 2 is “How could it feel like nothing had changed at all when I wasn’t me from the neck down?” and then chapter 3 is titled “From the Neck Down,” and describes Travis’ new body, part of which I quoted above. I love the way this concatenation resignifies a concept from one chapter and makes it the subject of the next. It’s as if Whaley sutures the body of one chapter onto the head of the next, making them so inextricable that the reader can’t do anything but read on, move forward. This stylistic enactment of Travis’ head being attached to another’s body delighted me every time it happened.

Noggin is exactly the kind of book I want to hand to anyone who thinks speculative fiction means books that are driven more by concept than by heart (well, head—and I’m out!). While its emotional stakes will feel deep and familiar, Whaley gets at them in a way that you have definitely never read before.

readalikes

Winger Andrew Smith

Winger (Winger #1) by Andrew Smith (2013). Ryan Dean West, our narrator, is a fourteen-year-old junior in high school who’s in love with his best friend, Annie, and making new friends on the rugby team. Like Travis, he’s dealing with being younger than his peers (though not for such arcane reasons) and having to renegotiate who his friends are. ADORE Winger! My full review is HERE.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Another awesome novel with a character who’s trying to start over. Liam Gellar is a popular kid whose dad thinks he’s a screwup. When he gets in trouble and moves in with his gay, glam rock DJ uncle, he decides that in order to make his dad proud, he’ll have to give himself a makeover: as an unpopular kid. But it’s not as easy as Liam thinks to be unpopular, and he finds himself screwing up even that. King of the Screwups is also similar in tone, with its great mixture of humor and melancholy. My full review is HERE.

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. John Corey Whaley’s Noggin will be available tomorrow.

The Scar Boys, A Musical Memoir

A Review of The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

Egmont USA, 2014

The Scar Boys Len Vlahos

by REBECCA, April 2, 2014

hook

When Harbinger (Harry) Jones was eight he was tied to a tree that got struck by lightning, leaving him badly scarred. After a childhood mostly without friends, Harry clicks with popular, charming Johnny in the 8th grade and they become inseparable. Then they start a band, and Harry realizes that onstage he can be everything he’s always wanted to be. This is Harry’s story of starting the band and everything that came after.

review

Harbinger Jones is one of the cooler names out there, Scar Boys has an awesome cover, I love music, and I love scars, so basically this book was perfectly poised to tickle me pink. And it’s not a bad book by any means. But it’s definitely more easy listening than heavy metal; more soft rain than lightning strike.

220px-University_of_Scranton_sealThe premise of the book is that it’s the essay Harry’s writing to apply to the University of Scranton. It’s supposed to be 250 words but—whoopsie—Harry goes over. Like, 256 pages over. Now, this is not an uncommon conceit; I mean, The Outsiders nails it, amiright? But it has a few drawbacks in The Scar Boys‘ case. Most important is the distance it imparts to the narrative. Harry is both writing about his experiences retrospectively, and with an eye toward whipping them into life lessons for the purposes of a college admissions essay, all of which makes this feel more like an adult looking back on his childhood than a teenager living his life. Author Len Vlahos also seems to be writing a somewhat autobiographical novel here, which likely exacerbates that sense of remove.

The fact that he’s extrapolating life lessons for the Faceless Admissions Professional (or FAP) as he tells his story also really undercuts any true emotion. Harry writes about something terrible that happened to him and makes the reader feel for him, then immediately says something to the FAP like “Of course, I should have known better, but I was an idiot then,” which makes the reader feel like, “Oh, well, I guess I shouldn’t feel anything for you, then.” By undercutting the true affective currency of Harry’s experiences, Vlahos winds up with an unintentionally flat emotional landscape.

War for the Oaks Emma BullThe voice Harry uses (addressing the FAP) also makes me feel less like I know him as a character, so even the elements of Harry’s psyche that I was interested in didn’t really resonate. For example, though the chapters are titled after songs and Harry talks about the feeling of playing the guitar, there isn’t much of a sense of musicality here. There are a number of really good books about music—one of my favorites, as far as communicating musicality in addition to describing music, is Emma Bull’s amazing War For the Oaks, written the year Vlahos’ novel is set—and The Scar Boys, for all its insistence upon music’s crucial role in its characters’ lives, doesn’t really deliver.

The Scar Boys is set in the late seventies and eighties—Harry writes his essay in 1987. Now, usually I don’t agree when people are like, “What was the point of setting the book in xxxx?” because I think the point is that the author chooses an emotional and historical landscape for their work. In the case of The Scar Boys, though, I found myself mildly irritated by the setting. And not (as I imagine some younger readers might be) because it’s unfamiliar to me. I was young in the eighties, but I was alive, and I’m certainly familiar with all the music Vlahos mentions. Rather, I was annoyed because it allowed for what felt like a loosey-goosey relationship between the characters and their musical influences.

There was very little specificity in what music Harry liked (or why) and, unfortunately, looked at from a distance of thirty years, the bands that announce the chapters all cohere into a fairly canonical group of white dudes. Of course, in 1987 when Harry is writing his essay, there is a huge difference between the upbeat pop hit “Daydream Believer,” by the Monkees (1967) and the tongue-in-cheek single “Punk Rock Girl,” by The Dead Milkmen, but none of that comes through—these pieces of music history become nothing more than titles that announce the theme of the chapter. Also, I believe “Punk Rock Girl” came out in 1988.

459px-Lightning_hits_treeSo many of these issues—perhaps even the wishy-washy use of music—could have been solved by nixing the college admissions essay conceit, so that’s a bummer. The story is solid, though: music bringing people together and tearing people apart, the trials and tribulations of touring in a junky van, etc. I actually thought Vlahos was at his best when writing about Harry as a kid—likely because it was more difficult for writer-Harry to comment on himself—his realization that the lightning strike changed his parents’ lives as well as his, his practice of dividing the world up into types of people based on how they react to his scars, and a few truly gutting memories of his father’s cruelty. Even these, though, are breezed through quickly, proofs of pain to shore up our sympathies for Harry later on.

The most poignant drama, for me, was between Harry and his best friend Johnny. As Harry gains confidence through music, he realizes that while Johnny’s been a good friend to him—a necessary friend—he’s also only comfortable when he’s in control, and Harry’s newfound confidence threatens him. These scenes were very well done and gave The Scar Boys at least a sprinkle of something.

Overally, The Scar Boys is a pleasant enough read, but doesn’t have much to recommend it, I don’t think, that you can’t find elsewhere. Check out the readalikes for some suggestions.

readalikes

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (2004). Anyone who is interested in a music-playing protagonist that doesn’t have the greatest self esteem should read Fat Kid Rules the World. Dare I say it does everything that The Scar Boys does only better? Yea, I dare. My full review is HERE.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children Kirstin Cronn-Mills

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012). Again, a book about the power of music to express ourselves—especially the parts of ourselves that we often keep under wraps for fear of what the world might think. Awesome book. My full review is HERE.

War for the Oaks Emma Bull

War For the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987). Eddi McCandry’s music is magic. No, really. This is a rollicking delight of a book about “false glamour and true art.” My full review is HERE.

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And, here is a list I compiled last year for Banned Books Week, called “Boo, Banned Books; Yay, Band Books: 10 Books About the Power of Music.” 

procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publishers (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos is available now.

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