Mythology Book Talk

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Each year our freshmen English I classes study classical Mythology.  Man, did I love teaching the literature in English I!  I mean, seriously,  The Odyssey, Mythology, Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird…you don’t get much better than that!

I wish that when I was leading students through an exploration of classical mythology, I had shared more books with them that borrow from it.  Part of the reason why I didn’t was because I didn’t know many!  But, now I have more to share than I have the time and space to do so.  Today, I posted a book talk sharing four YA novels that are inspired by mythology or spin-offs.


Five Survival and Suspense Titles: Inspired by "The Most Dangerous Game"

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What happens when man becomes his own worst enemy?  What lenghts will man go to in order to survive?  Inspired by Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,”  these five books will push the envelope.  Full of suspsense, tragedy, drama, and adventure,  these books will keep you on the edge of your seat to see what happens next.

1. The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

2.  The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

3.  Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston

4.  A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

5.  After the Snow by S.D. Crockett

You might also enjoy “I read the Hunger Games, now what?  Twenty books to check out next

Urban YA Top Ten

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Urban YA Top Ten List

In preparation for compiling a top ten list, I asked a good friend of mine if I could raid her English department library to brush up on my urban YA lit. As we poured over titles in a colleague’s classroom library, she asked, “How are you defining ‘urban YA?'”

I paused. “Well, YA titles with urban settings I guess?” (Dur).

I started to rattle off a number of what I felt to be obvious criteria: issues that deal with street violence, gangs, drugs, racial conflict, teen pregnancy, homeless teens, obscene language….and I stopped myself. Here I was, attempting to define a literary genre with every cliché that so many of my students are slapped with every day. I wouldn’t limit my understanding of my own students with these labels; how incredibly unfair of me to do it to the books they love!

Not only are these selections never sitting on the shelf collecting dust, they represent the realities of so many of our students whose stories traditionally have not been included in the literature we teach (or the titles with which we stock our classroom libraries). As a reading teacher, the following titles are “friends,” who I would gladly throw myself on my proverbial sword for if challenged, because the truth of the matter is these books could be challenged. Easily. The urban landscapes painted in these works are not only vivid and real, but their truth and complexity draws students into them, not the risqué four-letter words and adult scenes that keep pages turning and librarians cringing. The plots, while containing very adult themes, contain rays of hope amidst the stark realism of life on the streets for the protagonists who exhibit tremendous depth.

Lastly, I most appreciate these books for the sense of personal and reading identity they inspire in their reader. For many, these books are their first experiences with the sheer joy of reading. In these books, students recognize themselves, perhaps for the first time in their reading lives.

Top Ten Urban YA List (in alphabetical order):


Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes

“When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class and reads it aloud, poetry-slam-style, he kicks off a revolution. Soon his classmates are clamoring to have weekly poetry sessions. One by one, eighteen students take on the risky challenge of self-revelation…” (

The power of the spoken word–of poetry to bring down walls and build bridges. The experience of reading Bronx Masquerade aloud with my students not only helped to shape their reading identities as they could relate to the myriad of characters who lend their voices, but it also allowed us to explore our own stories through poetry. This title is one where students feel compelled to write in response to and in imitation of the student voices they recognize so well.


The First Part Last by Angela Johnson

“Bobby’s a classic urban teenager. He’s restless. He’s impulsive. But the thing that makes him different is this: He’s going to be a father. His girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant, and their lives are about to change forever…” (

This is one book that I brought to my classroom after finding it tucked away in the corner of a YA stack in a local used books store. It came to class on a Monday, I book-talked it in each class, and on Tuesday morning it was gone, never to be seen again. But, I would hear about it in passing from my students who shared it among themselves, and then from their friends and friends of friends in the hallway. It is such a gentle book. I don’t know how else to describe it other than that the tenderness and sincerity of the narrator, Bobby, is like a feather lofting through a breeze. And so does the book, float from reader to reader. Even my most hardened non-readers find something familiar in Bobby’s struggle to be a single, teenage father and the heart-breaking loss he keeps tucked away


by Alan Sitomer

“When Teddy Anderson’s little sister Tina is gunned down randomly in a drive-by shooting, the gangstas who rule the streets in the Anderson family’s rapidly deteriorating neighborhood dismiss the incident as just another case of RP, RT-wrong place, wrong time. According to gangsta logic, Tina doesn’t even count as a statistic …” (

In readers’ notebooks, I often find pages upon pages of students’ thoughts and reactions to this novel. Many of them feel they are Teddy. Empathy is hard to come by in many teens; Sitomer’s skill at painting characters who devolve truthfully through the course of the story enables the teen reader to put himself in another’s shoes.


Monster by Walter Dean Meyers

“Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me. MONSTER” (

Written as a screenplay, Monster is quickly devoured by any reader who opens to the first page of scrolling, Star Wars-esque credits. For some, however, reading a screenplay can be every bit as challenging as a full-length novel. But, once they embrace the form and listen as Steve stands behind and in front of the camera to try to process what has happened to him they are hooked to the end. Many readers feel compelled by the injustice as Myers masterfully paints the portrait of “the-boy-next-door” who made one mistake and is exposed to the harsh consequences of youth.


The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“Written over forty years ago, S. E. Hinton’s classic story of the struggle between the Socs and the Greasers remains as powerful today as it was the day it was written, and it is taught in schools nationwide…” (

Come on. Really? How could I not include the grand-daddy of all urban YA Lit?! I toyed with it, of course. But in the end, this timeless story still appeals to a wide array of readers in my high school classroom. Many students first encountered the book in middle school. In fact, in their reading biographies they write for me in the beginning of the year, The Outsiders, is the #1 book mentioned that they finished reading! Ever! With that kind of staying power, how could it not be on any top ten YA llist. Ponyboy is a reminder of the ever-present “socs” and “greasers” in the microcosm of high school.


Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles

“When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created “perfect” life is about to unravel before her eyes. She’s forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, and he is about to threaten everything she’s worked so hard for—her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the secret that her home life is anything but perfect…” (

Yes, it’s true; this is a re-told Romeo and Juliet…sort of. Perfect Chemistry is a prime example of the urban novel that crosses over from a landscape of privilege to challenge (Thomas, 2011). Even though the story and characters might border on cliché, the universal appeal and high-drama keep this book from collecting any dust on the shelf. I always find it interesting to watch the conversations between unlikely students that this novel sparks. Girls and boys alike of all backgrounds line up to read it and its subsequent sequels. They dub themselves the “Alex and Brittany Fan Club.””


The Rose that Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

“This collection of more than 100 poems that honestly and artfully confront topics ranging from poverty and motherhood to Van Gogh and Mandela is presented in Tupac Shakur’s own handwriting on one side of the page, with a typed version on the opposite side” (
I happened upon this tiny book by luck in the bargain bin at Borders Bookstore. I immediately saw its potential to engage students in poetry, but I couldn’t have imagined the fire it would ignite in my students. Not only were they astonished that they were allowed to read Tupac, they were thrilled to finally understand what I meant when I talked about choice–I really meant they had the freedom to choose books of their own interest. His collection of poetry became a gateway for students who would go on to Tupac’s biography, and then Jacquelin Woodson’s Tupac and D Foster, and into the worlds of Sitomer, Myers, and Drake.


Tyrell by Coe Booth

…”Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. …. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?” (

Honestly, Tyrell had me blushing at times when I read it. I wondered how I could bring it into my class library without drawing too much attention. Luckily, my students have learned the value of discretion, especially when they find a book they love. What I love about Tyrell is that he is a deeply sensitive, complex, conflicted teenage boy…aren’t they all? The age-old father/ son conflict plays like a soundtrack behind the reading of this novel, even though the father character never makes an actual appearance. We see all kinds of women as well, who are brought to life through a sixteen-year old’s eyes. Despite the dire circumstances and odds, Tyrell inspires hope.


The Skin I’m in by Sharon Flake
“Maleeka suffers every day from the taunts of the other kids in her class. If they’re not getting at her about her homemade clothes or her good grades, it’s about her dark, black skin.

When a new teacher, whose face is blotched with a startling white patch, starts at their school, Maleeka can see there is bound to be trouble for her too. But the new teacher’s attitude surprises Maleeka. Miss Saunders loves the skin she’s in. Can Maleeka learn to do the same?” (

How I love this book! I wish I could put this in the hands of every adolescent teenage girl, no matter their ethnicity, race, nationality, geography, or belief. I often need a box of Kleenex close buy as I read young girls’ responses to Maleeka’s struggle to accept and LOVE herself as she is. I swear, I think they walk a little taller by the end of this book.


Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanan

“Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?”

“So begins Upstate, a powerful story told through letters between seventeen-year-old Antonio and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Natasha, set in the 1990’s in New York. Antonio and Natasha’s world is turned upside down, and their young love is put to the test, when Antonio finds himself in jail, accused of a shocking crime…” (

(Confession) I haven’t actually finished Upstate. I don’t remember how it came to be in my library collection. I know I picked it up a few times and put it down, feeling that it was too trite, superficial, and explicit for my taste. But, out of desperation to get a certain reluctant teen reading, I placed it in her hands, and it spread like wildfire. I have faith in this book after reading about its characters in many response notebooks. My current copy has been “permanently borrowed,” but I’m not upset about it; I know it’s out there, floating from reader to reader inspiring hope.

Finally, I’d like to end with a poem that represents the Urban YA genre to me and its place in my classroom library:

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

~Tupac Shakur, The Rose that Grew from Concrete


Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth, “Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature” (2011). Faculty Publications. Paper 3.

I Read The Hunger Games, Now What?

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20 Books to Check Out After The Hunger Games

Did you speed through The Hunger Games trilogy with the speed of a tribute train?  Are you sorely missing the excitement and drama of the arena?  While you wait for Catching Fire, second film and book two of The Hunger Games trilogy, to be released on November 22, 2013 (15 more months!!!), check out some of these books that might help pass the time between films.  Click on the title to view book trailers, authors’ pages, and reviews of each title!

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
Throughout her career, Margaret Atwood has played with different literary genres in her novels–historical fiction (Alias Grace), pulp fiction (The Blind Assassin), the comedy of manners (The Robber Bride)–but no foray into genre fiction has been as successful as her turn to speculative fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, it echoes Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, but a vibrant feminism drives Atwood’s portrait of a futuristic dystopia. In the Republic of Gilead, we see a world devastated by toxic chemicals and nuclear fallout and dominated by a repressive Christian fundamentalism. The birthrate has plunged, and most women can no longer bear children. Offered is one of Gilead’s Handmaids, who as official breeders are among the chosen few who can still become pregnant.
 Maze Runner by James Dashner
When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls. Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night they’ve closed tight. And every 30 days a new boy has been delivered in the lift. Thomas was expected. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. Thomas might be more important than he could ever guess. If only he could unlock the dark secrets buried within his mind.
Matched by Allie Condie
Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate… until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black. The Society tells her it’s a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she’s destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can’t stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society’s infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she’s known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.
Shatter me by Tahereh Mafi
Juliette hasn’t touched anyone in exactly 264 days. The last time she did, it was an accident, but The Reestablishment locked her up for murder. No one knows why Juliette’s touch is fatal. As long as she doesn’t hurt anyone else, no one really cares. The world is too busy crumbling to pieces to pay attention to a 17-year-old girl. Diseases are destroying the population, food is hard to find, birds don’t fly anymore, and the clouds are the wrong color. The Reestablishment said their way was the only way to fix things, so they threw Juliette in a cell. Now so many people are dead that the survivors are whispering war– and The Reestablishment has changed its mind. Maybe Juliette is more than a tortured soul stuffed into a poisonous body. Maybe she’s exactly what they need right now. Juliette has to make a choice: Be a weapon. Or be a warrior.
Gone by Micheal Grant

In the blink of an eye.
Everyone disappears.
Everyone except for the young. Teens. Middle schoolers. Toddlers. But not a single adult. No teachers, no cops, no doctors, no parents. Gone, too, are the phones, internet, and television. There is no way to get help.
Hunger threatens. Bullies rule. A sinister creature lurks. Animals are mutating. And the teens themselves are changing, developing new talents—unimaginable, dangerous, deadly powers—that grow    stronger by the day (

From the co-creator of the bestselling “Animorphs” comes a gripping new series in which everyone disappears in a flash on their 15th birthday. It’s a terrifying new world, and time is running out.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
 A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives. But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
 Before scientists found the cure, people thought love was a good thing. They didn’t understand that once love — the deliria — blooms in your blood, there is no escaping its hold. Things are different now. Scientists are able to eradicate love, and the government demands that all citizens receive the cure upon turning eighteen. Lena Holoway has always looked forward to the day when she’ll be cured. A life without love is a life without pain: safe, measured, predictable, and happy. But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena does the unthinkable: She falls in love
Grave Mercy by Robin Lafavers
 Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others. Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
Birthmarked– In the future, in a world baked dry by the harsh sun, there are those who live inside the walled Enclave and those, like sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone, who live outside. Following in her mother’s footsteps Gaia has become a midwife, delivering babies in the world outside the wall and handing a quota over to be “advanced” into the privileged society of the Enclave. Gaia has always believed this is her duty, until the night her mother and father are arrested by the very people they so loyally serve. Now Gaia is forced to question everything she has been taught, but her choice is simple: enter the world of the Enclave to rescue her parents, or die trying. A stunning adventure brought to life by a memorable heroine, this dystopian debut will have readers racing all the way to the dramatic finish.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
 In a future Chicago, 16-year-old Beatrice Prior must choose among five predetermined factions to define her identity for the rest of her life, a decision made more difficult when she discovers that she is an anomaly who does not fit into any one group, and that the society she lives in is not perfect after all.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
 The Second Civil War was fought over reproductive rights. The chilling resolution: Life is inviolable from the moment of conception until age thirteen. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, however, parents can have their child “unwound,” whereby all of the child’s organs are transplanted into different donors, so life doesn’t technically end. Connor is too difficult for his parents to control. Risa, a ward of the state is not enough to be kept alive. And Lev is a tithe, a child conceived and raised to be unwound. Together, they may have a chance to escape and to survive.
Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
 Aria has lived her whole life in the protected dome of Reverie. Her entire world confined to its spaces, she’s never thought to dream of what lies beyond its doors. So when her mother goes missing, Aria knows her chances of surviving in the outer wasteland long enough to find her are slim.

The Lost Code by Kevin Emerson
What is oldest will be new, what was lost shall be found. The ozone is ravaged, ocean levels have risen, and the sun is a daily enemy.
But global climate change is not something new in the Earth’s history. No one will know this better than less-than-ordinary Owen Parker, who is about to discover that he is the descendant of a highly advanced ancient race–a race that took their technology too far and almost destroyed the Earth in the process. Now it is Owen’s turn to make right in his world what went wrong thousands of years ago. If Owen can unlock the lost code in his very genes, he may rediscover the forgotten knowledge of his ancestry . . . and that “less-than-ordinary” can evolve into “extraordinary.” Kevin Emerson’s thrilling novel is Book One of the Atlanteans series–perilous adventures in a grimly plausible dystopian future, fueled by high-stakes action, budding romance, and a provoc-ative question: What would you do if you had the power to save humanity from its own self-destruction?
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered. With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
 When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder — much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing — not even a smear of blood — to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy? This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know. . . . Exotic and gritty, exhilarating and utterly gripping, Cassandra Clare’s ferociously entertaining fantasy takes readers on a wild ride that they will never want to end.
Graceling– by Kristin Cashore
“His eyes, Katsa had never seen such eyes. One was silver, and the other, gold. They glowed in his sun-darkened face, uneven, and strange. She was surprised that they hadn’t shone in the darkness of their first meeting. They didn’t seem human….Then he raised his eyebrows a hair, and his mouth shifted into the hint of a smirk. He nodded at her, just barely, and it released her from her spell.Cocky, she thought. Cocky and arrogant, this one, and that was all there was to make of him. Whatever game he was playing, if he expected her to join him he would be disappointed.”
In a world where people born with an extreme skill – called a Grace – are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him. When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graces with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
 In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training. Ender’s skills make him a leader in school and respected in the Battle Room, where children play at mock battles in zero gravity. Yet growing up in an artificial community of young soldiers Ender suffers greatly from isolation, rivalry from his peers, pressure from the adult teachers, and an unsettling fear of the alien invaders. His psychological battles include loneliness, fear that he is becoming like the cruel brother he remembers, and fanning the flames of devotion to his beloved sister. Is Ender the general Earth needs? But Ender is not the only result of the genetic experiments. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway for almost as long. Ender’s two older siblings are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. Between the three of them lie the abilities to remake a world, if, that is, the world survives. Ender’s Game is the winner of the 1985 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1986 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Ship Breaker– In America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being broken down for parts, Nailer, a teenage boy, works the light crew, scavenging for copper wiring just to make quota–and hopefully live to see another day. But when, by luck or chance, he discovers an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, Nailer faces the most important decision of his life: Strip the ship for all it’s worth or rescue its lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl who could lead him to a better life… In this powerful novel, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers a thrilling, fast-paced adventure set in a vivid and raw, uncertain future.

White Cat– Cassel comes from a family of Curse Workers – people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they’re all criminals. Many become mobsters and con artists. But not Cassel. He hasn’t got magic, so he’s an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail – he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago. Cassel has carefully built up a facade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his facade starts to crumble when he finds himself sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He’s noticing other disturbing things too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of a huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to out-con the conmen.
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