Book review – A Single Man

a single man

A Single Man (c) Christopher Isherwood, 1964

Often celebrated as Christopher Isherwood’s masterpiece, ‘A Single Man’ tells the tale of George Falconer, a middle-aged English university teacher, who finds himself having a hard time overcoming the sudden death of his longtime lover and housemate Jim.

The background of the story is suburban Southern California of the early 1960s and its eclectic society, itself battling with its wartime past and its uncertain future. Old and young generations clash constantly, not understanding each other’s roles in present times; life is confusing and for most, devoid of significant meaning and/or purpose.

In the midst of it all, George tries to relearn how to live and enjoy the simple pleasures in life, whilst fulfilling his daily gestures and social obligations.

He is in no way a quitter after all, and with extraordinary humor and clairvoyance, Isherwood has depicted to the reader George’s resolute determination to keep on living, and to not succumb to the alienation Jim’s loss has resulted in for him.

If you are not familiar with Isherwood’s book, but instead with Tom Ford’s 2009 film adaptation based on it, the last paragraph might come as a surprise to you. After all, Tom Ford’s ‘George’ is clearly a defeated man at the beginning of the movie, more than willing to follow his lover to the grave, even if that means putting an end to his own existence.

There are thus some differences between the book and its film adaptation, but the main premise of the original story is well portrayed throughout the film – that of Carpe Diem; to be present and live life in the moment, as if each day was your last one.

As for the rest: the amazing dialogues, the intriguing characters, the quiet insights into George’s states of mind, his strange symbiotic relationship with longtime friend Charley, it’s almost all there in the film as well, making it a wonderful and worthy adaptation of Isherwood’s short novel.

Don’t be fooled by its short length or deceptively simple appearance though. If you grant ‘A Single Man’ its deserved level of attention, you will soon realize that Isherwood has provided you with some of the most eloquent, profound, yet raw observations of the human mind you’ll ever read in prose. It is like diving into someone else’s conscience completely (in this case George’s) and experiencing alongside him, his doubts and fears regarding his future, but also the little joys he obtains from being able to connect with others and with the world around him.

+: ‘A Single Man’ is a beautifully written love story, and a powerful testament to mankind’s ability to overcome loss and alienation;
-: I can’t think of anything to say. ‘The Single Man’ is pretty flawless in my opinion: from the writing style, to the subtle complexity of its characters. (The same goes for Tom Ford’s film adaptation, by the way. Talk about perfect casting and art direction!)

Where to buy online (Portuguese translation): http://www.fnac.pt/Um-Homem-Singular-Christopher-Isherwood/a339956

Where to buy online (in English): http://www.bookdepository.com/Single-Man-Christopher-Isherwood/9780099548829

Publisher: Quetzal
Format: Paperback – 158 pages
ISBN: 978-972-564-924-4

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Book review – Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

o médico e o monstro

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (c) Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

The behavior of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a renowned and highly respected London doctor, starts to preoccupy his closest friends and house staff members, as the good doctor seems to increasingly fall under the influence of a most intriguing and violent character, Mr. Edward Hyde, who has become a frequent guest at Dr. Jekyll’s home and laboratory while the former is absent.

Fearing for the life and reputation of his doctor friend, the lawyer Utterson, takes it upon himself to investigate the strange case, particularly when reports of Mr. Hyde’s gruesome social conduct around London start to spread.

Baffled by Dr. Jekyll’s recent self-imposed isolation from the world, Utterson seeks advice from a common friend, Dr. Lanyon, who has long since been opposing Jekyll on matters of ethics in science.

But when Edward Hyde is accused of brutally murdering a Member of Parliament, the case takes a dangerous turn; forcing Utterson to directly confront Jekyll at the latter’s residence. And there is where he ends up finding out what has been really going on with his friend…

~.~.~

I don’t think I’m going to spoil the novella’s plot for anyone by revealing that Jekyll and Hyde are in fact the same person, the latter resulting from a bizarre scientific experiment developed over the years by Dr. Jekyll. The book has been around for so long that pretty much everyone knows this.

What people might not realize though, especially if they have not read the novella, is that the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is much more than a story about a wacky science experiment gone totally wrong, and the aftermath of its consequences.

And the message hidden within the pages of the book has helped this 19th century novella to be as relevant today, as it was when it was first published in 1886.

In essence, the novella talks about mankind’s struggle to balance their good and evil sides, and how no one is really intrinsically one way or the other. It also gives great emphasis to the fact that social conventions and expected social behaviors can lead to incredible tension in dealing and processing this inner duality of personalities.

You see, Hyde is not meant to be considered as the complete opposite of Jekyll’s personality. Edward Hyde is instead the result of Jekyll’s personality stripped of all imposed social conventions and rules.

By conducting his experiment, the doctor was in fact trying to devise a way to give a body to the darker aspects which his personality intrinsically possessed, but which could not be openly expressed by Dr. Jekyll’s in his social circuits, due to his established reputation as a good and sensible member of society.

As Jekyll confesses in the novella, had he approached his scientific findings with a less selfish and more positive design, Edward Hyde might have exhibited completely different personality traits. They would, however, still represent only a fraction of the doctor’s complex inner self.

The concept of human nature’s duality and of humanity’s inner conflict regarding good and evil was pretty much in vogue in Victorian times, so it is not surprising that the novella was an immediate success with the public upon its publication.

The fact that people are still talking about it and analyzing it nearly 130 years later, goes to show how powerful the core of the ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ is (and will continue to be) to all of us.

+: A little gem of a book that deals with a major theme that affects all mankind, in an easy and comprehensive manner;
-: Just don’t expect to be wowed by the writing style. By Victorian standards, the writing is pretty bland, but nevertheless still effective. The star of the novella is definitely its message and the thoughts and debates it provokes.

Where to buy online (Portuguese translation): http://www.fnac.pt/O-Medico-e-o-Monstro-Robert-Louis-Stevenson/a864205

Where to buy online (in English): http://www.bookdepository.com/Strange-Case-Dr-Jekyll-Mr-Hyde-Robert-Louis-Stevenson/9781402784026

Publisher: Civilização
Format: Paperback – 118 pages
ISBN: 978-972-26-3702-2

Book review – Cheerful Weather For The Wedding

cheerful weather for the wedding

Cheerful Weather For The Wedding (c) Julia Strachey, 1932

Dolly Thatcham is 23-years-old and getting married today. She is elegant, cultured, and also positively bored with the world and almost everyone in it, which in a way might explain why Dolly so unexpectedly decided to turn her fate around and marry the Hon Owen Bigham, who intends to leave for South America with his new wife to pursue his career there, right after the wedding.

Now Dolly’s house is full of relatives, eagerly awaiting her afternoon wedding ceremony (and the luncheon associated with it), and her mother won’t stop parading herself from room to room in a frenzy, perfectly oblivious to the fact that her daughter, on second thought, is perhaps not feeling that keen to walk down the aisle.

Marriage is life changing after all. But so are lost chances,… like the one personified by Joseph Patten, the young anthropologist who, whilst Dolly pulls herself together for the wedding, sits alone in the silent drawing-room downstairs, reminiscing in a depressed manner on the magical summer he’d spent with her just a few months ago, and that now threatens to never repeat itself again…

~.~.~

‘Cheerful Weather For The Wedding’ is a fun and light novella about pre-wedding jitters and obnoxious friends and families. Not the type of story for you? Well, rest assured that even if you can’t relate to the main character’s cold feet, it’s doubtful that you can say the same about the struggles she has with her peculiar relations.

Between the oblivious parent, the meddling aunt, the aloof uncle, the pestering cousins, the indecisive friends, and the intruding sibling, there are more than enough characters available for you to draw amusing comparisons with people within your own life.

The many characters and their different and distinct personalities are indeed what bring the novella to life. They are as funny in their ridiculous interactions with each other, as they are tragic in their self-centered and bemused ways.

You get the feeling that a lot more could be written about most of the characters, but the novella is so short, that before you even realize it, you will have reached its last page. And if it weren’t for Julia Strachey’s visual descriptions of the landscape and lighting surrounding the Thatcham’s country home, the novella would be even shorter! Still, as short as it is, ‘Cheerful Weather For The Wedding’ is quite the cheerful and amusing read.

+: It’s a wittily choreographed novella, guaranteed to put a smile on your face;
-: Some of the characters can seem a bit too out-of-place in the plot at times, but I suppose that’s one of the details that gives the novella its unusual charm.

Where to buy online: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/cheerful-weather-for-the-wedding-classic.html

Publisher: Persephone
Format: Paperback – 119 pages
ISBN: 978-1-906462-07-9

Book review – The Gracekeepers

the gracekeepers

The Gracekeepers (c) Kirsty Logan, 2015

So the world as we know it has long since come to an end in ‘The Gracekeepers’.

The oceans have swallowed up most of the earth and the few people who still inhabit the planet, either cling desperately and ferociously to their plots of land located on the scattered islands that remain, or wander more-or-less aimlessly through the vast ocean, calling ‘ships’ and ‘boats’ their homes.

Suffice to mention that the ‘landlockers’, as the islanders are known, are openly suspicious and prejudiced against anything related to the sea, including the ‘damplings’ (the people who live at sea). The relationship between the two groups can be described at best as strained, making the damplings not exactly welcomed on land.

Landlockers go as far as believing that all damplings are pirates and/ or thieves, waiting for the perfect opportunity to snatch away the former’s riches, or even their innocent children. As for the damplings, they seem to think that all landlockers are stuck-up prudes, overly obsessed with their cult of the tree gods, to whom the latter are rumored to sacrifice their infants.

In the middle, there are the ‘military’ and the ‘revivalists’, neither truly damplings nor landlockers, but hated by the two latter groups in equal measure.

North is a dampling who lives and works in the circus boat Excalibur, which travels between islands and archipelagos trying to entertain the landlockers in exchange for food.

After the death of her parents in a circus accident, North’s family became the circus’ crew, a mismatch of odd and quirky characters, who hide their true personas behind an androgynous appearance and masks of glitter.

But none of the crew members are as close to the girl’s heart as the wild bear with which North shares her dancing act in the circus. A bear which grew up alongside North, and which was orphaned on the very same night that the girl was, many years ago.

Callanish on the other hand was born a landlocker, in one of the most respected islands left on the planet, but a faithful accident drove her to exile and near-isolation in a house lost in the doldrums of the Equator.

Now she earns her pay as a gracekeeper, putting to rest the bodies of damplings who die at sea. She views her present life as a penance for her past mistake, but her heart knows no rest and every day she finds herself thinking about the one she left behind.

Both Callanish and North are hiding a secret, but it is only when a storm at sea propitiates a chance encounter between them, that they realize their struggles are more alike than they seem, and that despite their different backgrounds, their lives are very much intertwined.

~.~.~

What a magical novel! Magical, mysterious, unusual, fantasy and folklore-like, and filled with memorable characters.

I confess I was hooked on the book as early as its first couple of chapters, even when I was still struggling to figure out what the plot was all about.

It’s just that the story is so unique in the way that it is told, and the world and characters that Kirsty Logan created are so interesting and have so much potential within them, that it’s not easy to foresee how the plot will unfold.

The chapters jump from one character’s point of view to another’s, giving depth to their personalities and personal stories, even when they only have a secondary role to play in the novel.

Kirsty Logan’s writing style is perfection. Seriously! It’s the type of writing that makes you subtly but surely immerse yourself in a completely different and magical world, to the point you can envision every single scene of the novel in your mind.

‘The Gracekeepers’ is a book for dreamers, escapists and lovers of good old storytelling. It is delicate, vivid, beautiful, imaginative and filled with all the good and wonderful things that daydreams are made of.

+: A well-deserved shout-out to Suzanne Dean and Felicita Sala, respectively responsible for the design and cover illustrations of the hardback edition of ‘The Gracekeepers’ that I am lucky to own. It is said we should never judge a book by its cover, but in the case of this hardback edition, we can very well ignore this saying. It has the most stunning and beautiful cover I have seen in a book in a very long time, and thus it makes perfect justice to the book’s contents.
-: For all its beauty and expert storytelling, I’m aware that ‘The Gracekeepers’ is not an overall people pleaser. There are those who will find flaws in the plotline or in some of the characters’ behaviors, but the story’s haunting magic more than compensates for any possible mishap.

Where to buy online: http://www.bookdepository.com/Gracekeepers-Kirsty-Logan/9781846559167

Publisher: Harvill Secker
Format: Hardback – 293 pages
ISBN: 978-1-846-55916-7

Book review – Rise and Fall

rise

Rise and Fall (c) Micah Lidberg, 2010

If you were standing in the same place as you are now, looking out of your window, more than 65 million years ago, the chances are that you would be totally surrounded on all sides by giant reptiles called dinosaurs.” – excerpt from ‘Rise and Fall’.

‘Rise and Fall’ is a beautifully illustrated concertina book about the rise and fall of dinosaurs on Earth, and about the subsequent evolution of mammals.

I make it no secret that I am a sucker for illustrated books… I’m also a sucker for nature, biology and evolution, so when I first saw Micah Lidberg’s unusual book, I knew I somehow had to get my hands on it, and fast.

‘Rise and Fall’ is as much a silent story book, as it is a work of art that can easily be displayed around your home. If you like original and unusual little gems, then I guarantee you that you will adore Lidberg’s ‘picture of life’.

Every single cm of the double-sided massive illustration is packed full with meticulous details, making you stare at it for hours on end, without ever feeling bored.

The different scenes succeed one another with expert fluidity, and the use of mainly primary colors makes everything tie in together subtly. As an added bonus, the book’s inner dust jacket features a fun and educational introduction to the events that the concertina book portrays, making it an enjoyable read for both kids, and adults still in touch with their inner inquisitive self.

+: It’s very original, beautifully crafted, and a delight to stare at;
-: I’m not sure if it is due to the type of recycled paper, or to the inks used in printing the edition of ‘Rise and Fall’ that I own, but the book stinks. I mean, it really STINKS. It smells like a dead dinosaur would probably smell like! Still love the book to bits, though. XP

rise and fall (c) nobrow press

photo (c) Nobrow Press (http://www.nobrow.net)

Where to buy online: http://www.bookdepository.com/Rise-Fall-Micah-Lidberg/9781907704307

Publisher: Nobrow Press
Format: Paperback – 136 cm double-sided concertina book
ISBN: 978-1-90770-430-7

For more on Micah Lidberg’s work: http://www.micahlidberg.com

Book review – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

the girl who circumnavigated fairyland

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (c) Catherynne M. Valente, 2011

A word of caution: If you value ‘logic’ above all in your choice for books to read, avoid this one like you would a train wreck. If, however, you are partial to whimsical and bizarre plotlines with not much obvious sense behind them, then grab a snack and your tea of choice and prepare your brain to be turned inside out, because ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ is every bit as odd, as its title is a mouthful.

The story follows September, a twelve-year-old girl from Nebraska, who’s grown very tired and bored of her everyday uneventful life. Her father went off to fight in a distant war, and her mother spends most of the day away from their home fixing engines, leaving September alone with a dog the girl is not very fond of, and a pile of teacups and gravy boats to wash clean.

Because September was born in May, has a mole on her left cheek, and large and ungainly feet, a magical being called Green Wind took pity on her one evening and flew with his steed (The Leopard of Little Breezes) to September’s window inviting her to Fairyland.

He was quick to confess though, that being a Harsh Air, he wouldn’t actually be able to take her all the way to the place, but at least as far as the Perverse and Perilous Sea.

Of course September immediately agreed to it without question. How could anyone possibly say no to such an out-of-the-blue and bizarre invitation made by a complete stranger dressed in green from head-to-toe and riding a flying leopard, after all?…(*insert dubious stare of choice*)

So off goes September to a place which existence she was unaware off only 5 minutes ago, without sparing so much as a thought to her parents, or to the life she leaves behind (although we are soon informed by the narrator that September’s apparent emotional coldness is mostly due to the fact that, like most children her age, she is still Somewhat Heartless).

All is not well in the realm of fairies though, and September soon realizes that Fairyland and its inhabitants are in a bit of a predicament, crushed under the strict rules of the evil Marquess, who dethroned (and presumably killed) the beloved Good Queen Mallow.

After befriending a dragon-like creature called A-Through-L, who claims his father was a library, and after saving a tattooed, blue skinned boy named Saturday, who has the power to grant wishes when badly wounded in battle, September sets off on a mission (instructed by the Marquess herself) to retrieve a weapon hidden deep in the dangerous depths of the Worsted Wood – a weapon that can change Fairyland forever.

The amount of characters/ creatures/ magical beings September meets throughout her odyssey in Fairyland is only surpassed by their intrinsic weirdness. From two witch sisters who share the same husband, who also happens to be a Wairwulf (the word is not misspelled, trust me), a golem made out of soap mourning the loss of her creator, a little girl who can shapeshift into a dog and whose mother can shapeshift into a shark, a fairy who rides wild, untamed bicycles (or ‘Velocipedes’, as they are known in Fairyland) during their annual mating migration through the land, a furry little creature that claims to be Death and uses a mushroom-girl-suit to impress visitors that go into the Worsted Wood, people who only have half their bodies and that can merge with other people’s half bodies, 100+-year-old furniture and junk that develop speech faculties and very bitter personalities… Everything and everyone in the story is just so bizarre and all over the place, it is difficult to make sense of any of it most of the time.

I mean, sure, the good guys are good guys, the bad guys are bad guys, the little plot twists are easily resolved to fit the short chapters, but most of the time I felt as though there was nothing substantial connecting any of the characters or the events they went through.

Without wishing to make any sort of direct comparisons, I found ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ reminiscent of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, as well as Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’.

In similarity to ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ is pretty much nonsense writing from start to finish, but unlike the former, the latter’s plotline has little to no logic or obvious connections behind it. Stuff happens, just because it happens. Characters show up, only to disappear right afterwards, just because they do. Why is something happening in chapter III and not in chapter X? Because it is handy for it to happen in chapter III and not in chapter X. *shrugs*

Why does ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ vaguely remind me of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, you ask? Because if you know nothing of the two stories prior to going into them, you will be equally baffled by them.

If you look at the official movie poster for ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, and at the book cover for ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’, you’ll probably find yourself thinking they are both aimed at middle grade kids, or maybe at a pre-YA crowd… They’re not. Don’t be fooled by the fact that in both cases the protagonists are young girls.

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ were both created with an adult audience in mind. They are both dark fantasy stories that aim to awake and shake-up the residual inner child still living inside most of us.

If you don’t believe me, watch ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. Trust me, five minutes into the movie and you will be whisking any kids away from the room, while protecting their eyes from what’s playing on the TV screen.

As for ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’, you don’t even need to take my word for it. The story’s narrator addresses the Reader multiple times throughout it, and it is more than clear that she expects you to be of a grown-up age.

Besides, the writing style used in ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ is not exactly kid-friendly to begin with. The story is very eloquently written, mind you, even despite the wackiness of it all, but I don’t really think kids care much about the excessive use of a thesaurus that ends up at times distracting the reader from the actual story.

I really think this is one of those reads you’ll either love, or just don’t get the point of it, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m part of the second group (which, according to goodreads, seems to be a minority o_O).

Oh well, if anything, ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ has made me realize that my inner residual twelve-year-old self is more logical than whimsical. And you know what? After reading this book, I don’t mind that it is!

+: It’s certainly not your everyday, average read. It’s as out-of-the-box as any novel of the genre can probably get.
-: There are a lot of scenes in the story I have issues with, but the fight scene at the end killed the book for me. WTH was that? ! Oh yeah, and the Key part too. So much build up for that? Really?

Where to buy online: http://www.bookdepository.com/Girl-Who-Circumnavigated-Fairyland-Ship-Her-Own-Making-Catherynne-Valente/9781780339818

Publisher: Corsair
Format: Paperback – 328 pages
ISBN: 978-1-78033-981-8

Book review – All the Birds, Singing

birds

All the Birds, Singing (c) Evie Wyld, 2013

I think ‘original’ and ‘unsettling’ are pretty good words to describe ‘All the Birds, Singing’.

If you enjoy mystery/ suspense novels, then you’ll probably end up enjoying this book as well, even though its story is told in a way that is slightly different from most novels based on these genres.

Similarly to the majority of mystery novels though, trying to summarize its plot without giving most of it away can be a bit of a headache. Here’s my humble attempt at it:

‘All the Birds, Singing’ follows the story of Jake Whyte, a woman shrouded in mystery, who also doubles as the novel’s narrator.

As she ‘introduces’ herself to the reader at the beginning of the book, you understand that she is living alone in a sheep farm in an obscure British island with only a dog named Dog (yep, the dog’s name is really Dog) and a flock of sheep to keep her company.

You also quickly realize that Jake is a solitary type of character, but that her solitude is mostly self-imposed, and that she is in fact hiding from someone/ something from her past, who/ that prevents her from living a full and carefree life in the present.

She’s also battling with a recent mystery taking place at her farm. In the last month two of her sheep were found dead and mangled and Jake doesn’t know who (or what) to blame for their deaths.

The way ‘All the Birds, Singing’ is told is really interesting and refreshing, because you actually get two separate narratives in the same book, that alternate between them with each new chapter.

In one of the narratives you follow Jake from the present into the future, as she tries to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the dead sheep, as she addresses her inner demons and her repressed need to seek human contact, all the while as Jake tries to deal with Lloyd, a bizarre middle-aged man, who appears out of the blue one night in her farm and somewhat barges uninvited into her quiet, recluse life.

In the other narrative you follow Jake from the present gradually back towards her teenage past, which gives you a chance to slowly understand who Jake is, why she is the way she is, why she fled her native country of Australia and who/ what she fled from, and why part of her back is striped with scars.

The novel deals heavily with the theme of disconnection (be it disconnection from oneself, or from other people), and with the feeling/ sense of being an outcast, or of not belonging anywhere. The way Jake Whyte’s character is described throughout the novel makes her the perfect example of any of these traits.

A small warning: Jake’s story, specially her past story, can be quite dark at times, making ‘All the Birds, Singing’ definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. That being said, the author’s astonishing writing abilities make it nearly impossible to put the book down once you start reading it. ‘All the Birds, Singing’ is one hell of a page-turner!

Evie Wyld’s writing style is beautiful, even though I confess I was slightly baffled by it at first. I guess I’m more used to plain, straight to the point writing styles when reading suspense/ mystery novels, and as such, Wyld’s descriptive and poetic stylization came as a bit of a surprise to me… A very nice and welcoming surprise, it turned out.

I really liked the way the story was told, but I’d be lying if I said that, as a reader, I found the conclusion of the two narratives to be fully satisfactory. I wish I did, but in reality that was not the case. One of the narratives ended in a bit of a lackluster note for my personal taste, and the other narrative ended with more questions than answers, which I suppose is not necessarily a bad thing, but I find that Jake’s story could have benefited from a more concrete, or at least, a less ambiguous conclusion (again though, just in my personal opinion).

Also, I found that as we followed Jake deeper into her past, she began to act more and more like an altogether different character. This in part can be explained by the harsh and traumatic experiences she went through in her young adult life, but at least to me it doesn’t completely explain the almost 180º turn that her personality undertook since her teenage years.

+: The original and ambitious way in which the story is structured. The poetic style of the prose;
-: The unsatisfactory conclusion of the narratives (although whether you’ll agree with me or not, will depend on your own expectations as a reader in relation to the novel).

Where to buy online: http://www.bookdepository.com/All-Birds-Singing-Miles-Franklin-Award-winner-2014-Evie-Wyld/9780099572374

Publisher: Vintage
Format: Paperback – 229 pages
ISBN: 978-0-099-57237-4