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Psychological Thriller

THE MUSEUM OF DESIRE . . . Between the covers

MOD coverThe strange-looking empty mansion in the dry hills above Los Angeles is rented out as a venue for everything from cancer charity fundraisers to wild parties. As the much put-upon guy from the agency wearily pushes his cart of cleaning materials up the hill, he is expecting the usual joyless cocktail of spilled food, used needles and condoms. What he actually finds causes him to part company with his breakfast burrito.

In a stretch limo parked in front of the house, he finds four people, each very, very dead, and with the floor of the car swimming in blood. Cue another case for LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis and psychologist Dr Alex Delaware. Veterans of the long-running series (this is book number 35 since When The Bough Breaks in 1985) will know the basic set-up. Delaware’s day job is in child psychology, while Sturgis is, in now particular order, gay, unkempt, a brilliant cop and eternally hungry.

The four corpses in the limo seem to have nothing at all in common aprt from being dead; a thirty-something professional bachelor with an insatiable – but perfectly legal – love life, and elderly chauffeur, a gentle and harmless man with mental problems who lives in sheltered accommodation, and a rather unprepossessing middle-aged woman who, it transpires, had drink and drug issues, and lived mostly on the streets. To add to the mystery, the forensic team analyses the blood on the floor of the car – and it is canine.

Delaware and Sturgis are convinced that the killings took place elsewhere, and the interior of the limo was an elaborate stage set. But who is the director of this hellish drama, what is the message of the play, and who was the intended audience?

jonathan-kellermanBit by bit, one slender thread at a time, the tangle of the mystery is unpicked. As per usual Kellerman (right) gives us a spectacularly complex solution to the quadruple murder. It’s almost as if we are passengers on a train journey, and some of the sights that flash by the window before we reach our destination include erotic Renaissance paintings, a chillingly damaged autistic teenager and a brief glimpse of Herman Göring’s fabled collection of looted art.

There will be, no doubt, some people who will look down their noses at this book – and others like it – while dismissing it as formulaic. Of course it is written on a certain template, but that’s what makes it readable. That’s why readers turn, again and again, to books that are part of long running series. We don’t want John Rebus to start behaving like Jack Reacher, any more than we will be happy for Carol Jordan to turn into Jane Marple. The Museum of Desire is slickly written, for sure, but I think a better word is ‘polished’. Both the dialogue and interaction between Delaware and Sturgis crackle with their usual intensity, and we are not short-changed in any respect in terms of plot twists and deeply unpleasant villains.

The Museum of Desire is published by Century/Arrow/Cornerstone Digital, came out in hardback  and Kindle earlier this year, but this paperback edition will be available from 12th November.

LOST . . . Between the covers

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Leona Deakin introduced to Dr Augusta Bloom, her psychologist-turned-PI in Gone, which came out in 2019. Click here to read the review of that and get something of the background to Lost, the second novel in the series.

Augusta and her professional partner Marcus Jameson have had a major professional and personal falling out after their involvement with a manipulative psychopath called Seraphine. Jameson is a former military intelligence analyst, and has a decent pension, so he hasn’t needed the work, but Bloom’s latest case is just too intriguing for him to turn down.

An apparent Islamic terrorist has bombed a social event at the Royal Navy base of Devonport. There have been a handful of fatalities, but one of the injured – a Navy officer called Harry Peterson – has disappeared. He was seemingly taken away by ambulance, but his girlfriend Karene – dazed but uninjured in the bomb blast – has been unable to locate him in any of the local hospitals.

Karene gets no joy from either the Navy or the police, and so she turns to her friend Dr Augusta Bloom for help. Peterson eventually turns up, smuggled into a hospital by person or persons unknown. He has head injuries which were not sustained in the Devonport bombing and, when he wakes, he has suffered a substantial loss of memory.

Someone, somewhere is desperate for Harry Peterson to have no memory of the previous four years. Unfortunately for, those four years saw Peterson’s wife begin an affair which led to the breakup of their marriage and, more crucially, the beginning of Peterson’s romance with Karene. Now, he has literally no idea who Karene is.

As Bloom and Jameson chip away at what seems to be a granite wall of military secrecy, Peterson’s cousin, living a blameless and apparently mundane life in rural France, is found tortured to death. Photographs found in his cottage hint at a link to the goings on in England.The re-appearance of the malevolent Seraphine does nothing to clear the miasma round who is cleverly messing around with Harry Peterson’s mind – and why?

In the last quarter of the book, the pace turns frenetic, the plot ever more knotted and the scenery – from a torture room in a Central African Republic military base to a bank safe deposit vault in Peterborough – diversifies. Leona Deakin has great fun mystifying not only Bloom and Jameson but us the readers. The relationship between the pair of investigators is tested to breaking point with Jameson increasingly believing that he is being played for a fool, and when the case splits wide open to reveal not only political chicanery but links to people trafficking, then all bets on a peaceful and tidy solution are definitely off.

Lost, published by Transworld Digital, first came out in Kindle in the summer of this year. It will be available as a paperback, under the imprint of Black Swan, at the end of October.

KEEP HIM CLOSE . . . Between the covers

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Keep Him Close is quite an apt title for Emily Koch’s second thriller. The key word is ‘close’ as the whole story has the feel of events and emotions being observed at very close quarters, almost through the lens of a microscope. We see every little twitch and tremor in the lives of the two main characters, and the tension is quite claustrophobic at times. Two women. Two mothers. Two lost teenage sons. Alice’s son Louis is now in a police mortuary after falling – or having been pushed – from the roof of a car park. Indigo has, effectively lost Kane, but this time to the criminal justice system as he awaits trial for murder, after he admits responsibility for Louis’s death.

KHM cover017The two women have little in common except the convergence of the social lives of their sons and the fact that neither has a husband in the house. Alice was married to Etienne, but he is long gone, having fallen in love with someone else. Indigo’s husband took his own life. Indigo is what some might call an ageing hippy. She dresses rather chaotically and earns a living as an art therapist. Alice once had dreams of being a concert pianist, but now works as a librarian. She has a certain primness associated – rightly or wrongly – with that profession. Let us be generous and say that Alice appreciates order and method.

What began as a night out for post-exam teenagers ends with the dreaded late night knock on the door by police officers and expands into a nightmare as Alice and older son Ben try to come to terms with the death of Louis, while Indigo can only look on in confusion as Kane is, first, identified on CCTV as someone who the police would like to speak to and, second, blurts out his guilt in a police interview room.

Where the story develops its edge is when Indigo – something of a flustered airhead when it comes to technology – goes to the local library to use one of their computers. By investigating Kane’s social media activity she hopes to locate other youngsters who were witnesses to the apparent fracas which ended with Louis plunging to his death. Who should be the kindly library assistant who helps Indigo check her son’s Facebook profile? Why, none other than Alice! The frisson starts to do its shivery work because Alice recognises Indigo, but Indigo has no idea of the identity of her helper.

There are one or two sub plots by way of diversion. Former hubby Etienne turns up, we suspect that the police have been less than thorough in their investigation and we are given to wonder if Ben knows more than he is telling. We only meet the soon-to-be-late Louis in the early pages, and while he comes over as not being the most adoring of sons, we later learn the reason for his apparent antipathy.

KHM author018The structure of the book is intriguing; we learn about the contrasting characters of Alice and Indigo in different ways; Alice’s story is told third-party, while Indigo tells us herself. This has the effect of making Alice more aloof and remote, and is a clever device which hints she is somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

Emily Koch (right) ratchets up the social and emotional tension as Alice and Indigo dance their stately sarabande to the tune of the legal recriminations following the tragic conclusion of what may have been just a drunken scuffle – or something far more sinister. This book is a must for those who like their psychological dramas acted out on a small stage but exquisitely observed. Keep Him Close is published by Harvill Secker and is out in Kindle on 12th March and in print on 19th March

THE SECOND WIFE . . . Between the covers

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The Second Wife is Rebecca Fleet’s second novel. Her first, The House Swap, was well received and now she takes her skill at writing engaging domestic thrillers to the next stage. I will say at the outset that as much as I was gripped by The Second Wife, I was cursing quietly to myself because it contains a seismic plot shift towards the end which completely demolishes every assumption the reader may have made about what is going on, based on what he or she has been told by the different narrators. But why the curses? Simply because it makes a summary doubly difficult, because no reviewer wants to be known as the person who gave the game away. I loved the book, however, and I want you to love it too, so here goes – treading on eggshells.

TSWThere are three narrative viewpoints; centrally, there is Alex. He is a widower with a teenage daughter, Jade. He works in an advertising agency in Brighton, on England’s south coast. His first wife died from cancer when Jade was just a little girl, but he has remarried. The titular second wife Natalie is one of the storytellers, and she does her best to be a decent ‘second mum’ to Jade, although hormones have started to kick in and Jade is, like every modern teenage girl, obsessed with her social media profile and perceived slights from her step mum.

The novel begins with a serious fire in Alex’s house. Natalie, overcome by the smoke and flames, has been unable to rescue Jade, but the emergency services arrive in time to bring the teenager to safety. Temporarily relocated to a hotel, Alex and Natalie take turns at Jade’s hospital bedside as she slowly recovers from the ordeal. As Jade comes back to life, Alex is both puzzled and horrified at his daughter’s insistence that there was a strange man in the house at the time of the fire. Now, Alex’s disquiet turns to genuine alarm, and Natalie admits to him that she has a disturbing back-story.

RF014Her estranged sister, Sadie, has led a wayward and self-destructive existence which has forced Natalie to put some distance between herself and her sister, and reinvent herself using a different identity. Sadie’s obsession with a violent criminal has gone disastrously wrong, and Natalie is trying to lead a new life. By this time, Fleet (right) has given Sadie a voice of her own, and we listen to the musings of a sexually promiscuous young woman who has used men like Kleenex, and has a moral compass that barely makes the needle flicker beyond zero on the scale. But she has fallen under the spell of Kaspar, a London club owner who uses women in the same way that Sadie has come to use her queue of suitors.

So, we have the three viewpoints. Timewise, they span almost a decade. All I can say is that one of them – and you have to choose – is telling the mother of all lies. The Second Wife is anxiety-on-a-stick and, although the plot twist left me wondering who on earth I could rely on to tell me the truth, this was a brilliant read, and a novel that confirms Rebecca Fleet’s place at the top table of contemporary crime fiction writers. The Second Wife is published by Doubleday and is out today, 5th March.

THE BETTER LIAR . . . Between the covers

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The basic premise of The Better Liar, the smart and sassy debut thriller from Tanen Jones, is that a man has left a large sum of money to be divided between his two daughters, on the proviso that they both turn up together to be instructed by his lawyer. Not too much of a bind, you might think, but Robin and Leslie have not seen each other for half a lifetime. Leslie has stayed home, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Robin, with her killer looks and body, has cut herself off from home altogether and is, as the song goes, somewhere out there.

TBLWhen their father dies after a long illness, Leslie sets out to find Robin and eventually tracks her down to a seedy apartment block in Las Vegas.One slight problem. Robin is face down on the bed in the cockroach infested room, dead of a drug overdose.

Leslie flees the scene, trying to process multiple emotions.It’s too much of a shock for her to face regretful recollections of her childhood with Robin, but not too soon for her to realise that she might be kissing goodbye to her share of her father’s legacy. Quite by random, she meets Mary, a young woman working as a waitress in a Vegas restaurant. Here’s the thing, though. Mary has more than a slight resemblance to Robin, at least the Robin of old, before she became an emaciated drug victim. Leslie dreams up a seemingly preposterous plan: what if Mary, an aspiring actress, agrees to pass herself off as Robin? No-one in Albuquerque has seen Robin since she was a rebellious teenager, least of all the lawyer who will make the big decision to sign off the bequest to the two grieving daughters.

Tanen Jones has great fun dividing the narrative between three voices, those of Leslie, Mary – and the late Robin. Of course, all is not what it seems to be, and when the counterfeit Robin agrees to go along with the deception, the pair drive back to New Mexico to await the crucial meeting with the lawyer.

Trust is the central issue in tricksy thrillers such as this. Tanen Jones, through her narrators, tells us stuff. But who are we to believe? Is Leslie really a slightly OCD homebody, and what is her cash-flow problem? What about her genial husband Dave? Is he leading a double life? Devoted dad to one year-old Eli, or a serial philanderer?

author+photo+tanen+jones+(1)Alert readers may well figure out what is actually going on well before we get the big reveal, but even if you do, it won’t spoil the enjoyment. Tanen Jones (right) takes a wry look at modern obsessions, including a single mom who earns a living for herself and two little boys by posting stuff on Instagram, the debilitating half life lived by relative strangers messaging each other on social media, and the grim reality of women hooked into relationships with parasitic and abusive men.

One thing is for certain; Tanen Jones has created one of the most devious, damaged and deadly female central characters that I have encountered for many a day. Thing is, though, which one is it, Leslie, Mary or Robin. Who is the better liar?

The Better Liar is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.

Tanen Jones grew up in Texas and North Carolina. She has a degree in American History and spent several years editing law and criminal justice textbooks. She now lives in New York with her partner, and her website is here.

You can also find her on Twitter where she is @TanenJones

HAPPY EVER AFTER . . . Between the covers

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C.C. MacDonald’s debut novel is a psycho-thriller which mines the rich seam of middle-class anxiety and social neuroses which has become a staple of recent English crime fiction. Naomi and Charlie, along with toddler Prue, have relocated from the hipster London district they can no longer afford, kissing goodbye to the artisan bakeries, faux village ambience and the coffee shops where the wi-fi signal is as vital as the alchemy of the barrista. They now live in a rambling Victorian house in Margate, on the Kent coast, a town which MacDonald himself refers to as Shoreditch-on-Sea.

Naomi is a feature writer of some sort, while Charlie is an entrepreneur designer in the tech industry. While a succession of sharp-intake-of-breath builders and carpenters transform the neglected house into a Sunday supplement paradise, Naomi is desperate to conceive a second child. Naturally, both she and Charlie have smartphone apps which track her fertility cycle and give the couple vital windows when hurried coupling should produce little Prue’s sibling. Sadly, none of the digital wizardry seems to work. Charlie is all-too-often not up-to-snuff, and Naomi’s obsessive quest is becoming counter productive.

HEA coverWhile on her daily run there and back to Prue’s nursery school, Naomi meets a stunningly attractive alpha male called Sean, and his bluff insouciance is such a contrast with Charlie’s needy self-absorption that she is smitten. One thing leads to another – the ‘another’ being hurried stand-up sex in the shower cubicle at a local leisure centre – and guess what? Sean’s urgent thirty seconds has done the job, and Naomi is, at last, pregnant, but possibly by the wrong man.

Cue much heart-searching by Naomi as she tries to get to grips with the moral dilemma of her situation. Sean, however, is not around, however, either to help or to hinder. When Naomi discovers that Sean was only at the nursery on a baby-sitting job, she tries to find him. His apparent disappearance is resolved when Naomi discovers that he has not only been hiding in plain sight, but actually conspiring to stalk her and threaten the already fragile happy family she has tried to create.

MacDonald doesn’t set out to make us laugh with obvious satire, but he has fun casting a jaundiced eye on Naomi’s preoccupations. She is at a rather pretentious playgroup called ‘Sing, Sign and Movement.’

“She looks around the huge room at bored dads looking at football news on their phones, harassed mums in sportswear attempting to marshall small-scale civil wars between siblings and sugar-amped children rocketing around like derailed dodgems. She never feels further from her life in London than when she’s somewhere like this.”

Later, she is living the life at a popular café:

“Kids run riot between the replica Eames chairs as Charlie bustles between them carrying a tray. Some people talk a good game when it comes to doing everything for their children but the parents here have come for the artisan coffee and to talk to people like them in a décor that resembles something they’ve seen on Instagram and sod it if their child has to fight with ten others to play with the lone Ikea kitchen.”

CCMAny sense of lifestyle mockery, gentle or otherwise, dissipates once we reach the final quarter of the book. Naomi discovers that whoever Sean really is, his plans for her and her family involve much than a few moments of lust. I certainly didn’t see the plot twist coming, and MacDonald (right) springs one surprise after another, right up to the final paragraphs. If you can’t make sense of the brief chapter interludes which consist of MSN messages (remember them?) between some bitchy schoolgirls, don’t fret – you will.

While Happy Ever After won’t leave you with a warm and life affirming glow about people’s basic decency, it is a rattling good read, full of acerbic observation and dark character insights. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out on 23rd January.

I have a mint unopened hardback copy of Happy Ever After, and it needs a good home. To be in the draw to win it, just ‘like’ this post here or on the Fully Booked Facebook page. You can also check my twitter feed, and RT or like any of the links to this review. Competition closes 10.00pm Tuesday 28th January. UK addresses only, please.

STOP AT NOTHING . . . Between the covers

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Tessa Hopwood is a fifty-something mum, a journalist recently ‘let go’ by a top magazine, a serious drink-driving conviction on her CV to accompany a failed marriage and one of two daughters estranged – they haven’t spoken in months. When the younger daughter, Emma, is attacked on her way home, Tessa’s life is turned on its head. Em is shocked and shaken, physically bruised but – most importantly – saved from any sexual assault by the timely intervention of a passer by. When the police organise an ID parade to identify the culprit, neither Em nor witness Frances can identify the ‘right’ man and Tessa, convinced that she knows who Em’s assailant is, decides to do things her own way.

SANPoor Tessa is a mess, actually. Struggling to cope with the physical and psychological effects of the menopause and her self-esteem battered by redundancy, she is prey to all manner of fancies, midnight imaginings and “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Much of Stop At Nothing is pure anxiety porn, as Tessa makes bad judgment after bad judgment, wrong call after wrong call. Readers will see the picture – at least part of it – way, way before she does, and in places the narrative reminded me of the frequent moments in Hammer horror films where the heroine (usually scantily clad) insists on going down into the cellar clutching only a flickering candle. We want to grab Tessa by the arm and say. “Do. Not. Do. This!

TCPersonally, I warmed to Tessa – and her unfailing knack of getting things wrong – much more when her relationship with her elderly parents moved to centre stage. The tragedy of dementia is a natural cruelty that makes even the most devout religious person want to howl with rage at the heavens, and Tammy Cohen (right) handles this poignant mix of frustration and fury with a deft touch.

This is a novel of great subtlety, less a crime novel, more a detailed portrait of obsession and  deception. Tessa Hopwood’s north London life is one that will be uncomfortably familiar to many readers, with its mixture of social angst, financial pressures and the constant urge to “keep up, don’t dawdle – just keep up..

Stop At Nothing is published by Bantam Press and is available now. For a review of another novel by Tammy Cohen, writing this time as Rachel Rhys, click the link to Dangerous Crossing (2017)

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GONE . . . Between the covers

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In Gone, Leona Deakin’s debut thriller, we meet Dr Augusta Bloom, a psychologist, and her business partner Marcus Jameson. They have established an investigation agency which offers the selling points of Bloom’s skills in understanding the human psyche and Jameson’s rather darker arts, developed during his time working for a shadowy government intelligence unit. The business is doing making headway, but not so much so that Bloom doesn’t ask questions when Jameson asks her to work pro bono on a family-related issue.

41-XAu63npL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Jameson’s sister Claire has, for some time, fulfilled a mixed role of aunt, mother and babysitter to a teenage girl called Jane. Jane’s mother Lana, is a single mum, loving but chaotic, perhaps suffering from PTSD after several tours in conflict zones when she was a soldier in the army. Now she has disappeared, leaving Jane with no money for food or rent. Knowing of her mum’s fragile mental state. Jane was not initially alarmed, but when she began to investigate, after receiving no help from the police, she made several disturbing discoveries.

Lana disappeared on her birthday. Immediately before her disappearance she had received a mysterious card inviting her to play a game. The beautifully presented card bore the words, elegantly embossed in silver on cream:

“Happy first birthday.

Your gift is the game.
Dare to play?”

Jane has discovered, via the internet, that her mum is not the only person to have vanished from the face of the earth, having been sent the same invitation. Dismissed by the police, her only way forward is to ask for expert help.

Bloom’s initial reluctance to become involved softens, as she remembers two daunting experiences with psychopaths in her own recent history. One ended tragically, but the other – involving a clever and manipulative teenager called Seraphine – has remained lodged in her memory for different reasons.

Leona_DeakinLeona Deakin’s own experience and training in psychology gives this novel a framework of authenticity to which the more fanciful parts of the narrative can cling. It soon becomes clear to the reader that Deakin has presented a neat and convincing conjuring trick: the missing are no longer the victims – they are the ones to be feared; those left behind have become the prey.

 The relationship between Bloom and Jameson is intriguing. It reminded me of the unresolved tension and undeclared love between Val McDermid’s doomed lovers Tony Hill and Carol Jordan. We are left to decide for ourselves what Augusta Bloom looks like; Deakin (right) suggests that she might be rather dowdy, an academic in flat shoes. She is certainly razor sharp mentally, however, and she plays a devastating human chess game with the organisation behind the birthday card disappearances.

Gone is published by Black Swan, part of the Penguin group. It came out as a Kindle in August this year, and will be available as a paperback on 12th December.



The second Augusta Bloom novel, Lost,
will be out next year.
Watch this space for more details.

COME BACK FOR ME . . . Between the covers

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CBFMOn a tiny island off the Dorset coast of southern England, a little girl lives a dream childhood. Loving parents, the beauty of the sea and the sky, and the cloudless blue optimism of the young. But then, one terrible night, Stella Harvey’s idyll is shattered. On a September evening, with a violent storm lashing the tiny harbour of Evergreen Island, David Harvey ushers his family on board the ferry he runs for a living, and takes them away to the mainland. For ever.

“At eleven, I wasn’t prepared to accept our parents’ hurried reasons for leaving the island. I couldn’t believe that this was for good and I couldn’t understand one bit why they were dragging us away in the middle of a storm. ‘Will we come back?’ I whispered to my sister? Bonnie’s hand shook as it reached for mine under my mac. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t believe we ever will.’”

Years have flown by. Stella is now a consulting psychotherapist. Sister Bonnie is married with children. Their mother, Maria, is long dead, killed in a road accident. Father David, having left Maria for another woman, is now in the throes of dementia.

Stella’s equanimity is cruelly disturbed when she sees a TV news report that human remains have been discovered on Evergreen, but worse is to follow. The body a of a woman, long dead, has been found very close to her old home, and police have not ruled out foul play. Despite Bonnie’s advice to leave well alone, Stella is hypnotically drawn to unfolding events, and decides to return to her old home.

Inevitably, as night follows day, Stella’s arrival on Evergreen is not a joyful homecoming, and several skeletons come dancing and rattling their bones out of the cupboard to which time has consigned them. Firstly, Stella learns the tragic reason why her best friend and sworn blood-sister never replied to any of the letters she sent when the Harvey family began their new life on the mainland. Then, with the cruel perceptiveness of adulthood stripping away the illusions of youth, Stella looks on with horror as, first, the grisly remains are identified and personalised and then, second, questions from the past, smothered by time for so long, leap out into the present and demand answers.

HPWhen Stella’s long-since-estranged brother, Danny, is drawn into what has become a murder investigation, the novel takes a seriously dark turn as it examines the nature of truth, loyalty, memory and love itself. Heidi Perks (right) has written a novel which will entrance readers who like a good psychological thriller, and she leaves us with a sense of sadness, certainly, but also an affirmation that, in the words of St Paul:

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

As timeless as his remarks are, we should not let St Paul have the last word. Stella Harvey says:

“Yes, I decide, I can live with a lie, because the alternative is unbearable…And I’ll live with it hanging over me forever, because that’s the trouble with secrets. They never go away.”

Come Back For Me will be published by Cornerstone Digital as a Kindle on 1st June, and in hardback, by Century, on 11th July.

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