Tag Archives: books

Maggie and Me – book review

10 Jul

I’m not sure that in normal circumstances I would have picked up Maggie and Me by Damian Barr.

But what do I mean ‘normal circumstances’? I think I mean ‘of my own volition’. I have to confess that much of my book buying I now done online (yes, I own a kindle, and I LOVE it). There is less of that happy bookshop browsing time in my life, although I must confess to an impulse purchase of Jackie Kay‘s ‘Fiere’ when I took the scenic route via Looking Glass Books back to my office the other week.

So, what I am saying is that if I’d happened upon Maggie and Me in a bookshop I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance.

But luck is on my side. I worked for several years at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (@edbookfest) which wasn’t just the loveliest team in the world, it was also a brilliant provider and recommender of good reading material. Of course. And, although I no longer work there, their Associate Director (@RolandGulliver) is my daily commuting buddy. And one of his many talents is his skill in recommending books. It helps that we both adore Niccolo Amaniti (and are both disappointed in his latest novel).

So, Roland recommended I read Maggie and Me. In fact he issued it as homework when I took week off.

Reading is a slightly different experience with a kindle, as opposed to a physical book with papery pages. For a start you probably won’t have turned it over and read the back, or the inside back cover about the author. You won’t see a picture of the cover every time you pick up the book to read it. So, in effect, all you can go on are the words on the ‘page’. This should be a good thing. And often it is. But it also means that I regularly can’t remember the name of the book or the author I am currently reading.

I remembered Maggie and Me. And Damian Barr. Probably because the book references Margaret Thatcher (the Maggie of Maggie and Me) so regularly, and vividly (opening with the writer’s memory of the night of the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA, and Maggie walking out un-harmed, apparently un-fazed).  And Damian? Why do I remember his name? Perhaps because he is called names at school, or perhaps just because I tried to remember his name so that I could lookout for more of his writing. Yes, it’s that good.


In Maggie and Me, Damian recreates Scotland in the 80s; it is the era of Thatcher, of her power, but also of the very real hatred of her in many homes in Scotland. Damian’s father works at ‘the Craig’ (Ravenscraig) which is threatened with closure. Wee Damian is convinced that Maggie won’t allow this to happen, but we all know the outcome – there would be no more second sunsets. His parents have separated by this time and Damian is living in the roughest and most violent flat in a rough and violent estate. He finds solace at the Carfin grotto, which says it all about the writer’s ability to find humour in what was an appallingly difficult childhood.

I laughed out loud. I cried. But I didn’t want this book to end. Go buy it. Go buy tickets to see Damian Barr at a Book Festival, or just follow him on twitter – he deserves your attention.

Maggie and Me will certainly make it onto the ‘favourite books of the year’ list for 2013.





26 Jun

Inspiration is a strange thing. You never know where you’re going to find it. Sometimes it’s from another person, a conversation you have, something they mention. Sometimes it’s from something you read, or hear about. Or with cooking it can be from the raw ingredients, what’s available, fresh and seasonal, or just left over in your cupboard. Or from something else you taste. Or a smell, or a memory, or a piece of equipment, or a serving dish, or piece of crockery. And sometimes it just springs up from somewhere inside you and you have no idea how it appeared.

Much of my inspiration comes from what I read, or what ingredients I have to hand, or spy in the shop/market.

Two books which are inspiring me just now include:

Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things To Eat. A very recent purchase, and bought entirely because I love his regular feature in the Sunday Times, our weekend paper of choice. Today I didn’t bother with inspiration, I just made one of the recipes as it was written: a salad of cucumber, strawberry and watercress. Just divine, with a sharp sweet vinegary dressing and more black pepper to add further bite to it. Let me know if you want the full recipe.

Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I’ve owned this book for several years, and find myself constantly going back to it. Recently it was for a recipe for soda bread and its variations, and before that it was elderflower fizz and vinegar. It’s not just a go-to book for certain recipes it is also the perfect book for browsing – I have a fantasy about making a cold smoker, to smoke my own meat and fish and this book shows me how. She also shows you how to to cure bacon, store fruit, make suet, skin a wood pigeon and writes beautifully about her memories of the local pig killer. In fact, what makes this book is the human element – the memories and the stories bring her food to life. If you’re even vaguely interested in what I would call ‘traditional’ cooking skills and recipes then buy this book. It will delight and inspire you.

I have many cookbooks. I know that won’t surprise you. I love books and I love cooking, so of course I have many cookbooks. And I also live in two different places. It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I do. Through the week I am in a wee flat in Edinburgh, and at weekends I am in the Clyde Valley with my boyfriend. I’m living the dream.

But dreams can occasionally be confusing. I don’t always have the clothes I want or need in the place I want them. Or the right necklace to go with whatever I’m wearing. I know, I know, real first world problems.

One of the confusions I wouldn’t have predicted was the recipe confusion. I’m never sure if I’ll have the right cookbook with the recipe I need in the place I’m cooking at the time. Or if I want to plan what to make at the weekend, I can’t browse a cookbook and plan it till I get there.

Until now.

My new favourite thing is EatYourBooks. It’s a website where you can keep track of your cookbooks. If that was all it did you wouldn’t be very impressed would you? So of course it does more. It has a vast database of indexed cookbooks. And for each indexed cookbook it includes each recipe, and the key ingredients in each recipe. How genius is that?

So, imagine I know I want to cook something with aubergines and chicken. I search ‘my bookshelf’ and I find I have 23 recipes with these two ingredients, ranging from Miso Roasted Chicken (Donna Hay) and Green Chicken Curry (Vatch’s Thai Street Food) to Grilled Breast of Chicken with Provencal Vegetables and Aioli (Simon Hopkinson). And, as I tagged each book as I added it to my shelf, I know which books are in Edinburgh and which in the Valley. And of course the website lists the ingredients I need for each recipe (a straight list, without quantities) so I know if I’ll need to buy an extras to make the dish. Oh, and it includes various magazines as well. I tell you, it is perfectly genius, and I love it.

And it includes cookery blogs. And it highlights new articles from its featured blogs, so today I learnt how to make my own creme fraiche from Food52. You do know Food52 don’t you? It’s food porn. But useful porn, if such a thing exists. Go find out for yourself.


State of Wonder

21 Jun

I love Ann Patchett. I didn’t know I loved Ann Patchett, but really I think I do.

She’s one of those authors who have crept up on me.  I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her and then I started coming across Bel Canto a few years ago, and it became one of those books that I ended up having to read, or it felt like it would keep cropping up in my life until I did. But let’s face it, it was no hardship to read it was it? If you haven’t been there yet, just buy it this weekend and find a comfy spot and start reading. You’ll thank me.

Then I saw Ann Patchett at the Book Festival in Edinburgh a few years ago. She was with another author, Valerie Martin I think, and I have a feeling that it was the other author I was initially interested in. Anyway, I no longer recall why I was quite so determined to see this event… out of around 800 events with world class authors, thinkers, politicians, commentators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, scientists, et al why would it be this one that I actually go to?  You see, although I worked at the world’s largest (and possibly greatest) book festival for a number of years my attendance at live literature events was woefully low. But I read a lot, and had a great time, so no regrets!

Anyway, back to Ann P. I bought her novel ‘Run’ off the back of seeing her in conversation with Valerie Martin. And it didn’t disappoint either.

So, when I saw that State of Wonder was shortlisted for the Orange, I knew I had to read it. That was all I knew about State of Wonder though – it was written by Ann P and had been shortlisted for the Orange prize. So, two good reasons to read it really.

It’s interesting when you start reading a book with no real idea of ‘what it’s about’. Especially if you read on an e-reader and so don’t see even the front cover as a clue, or the blurb on the back to give you an idea of what might be within. I realise that ‘what it’s about’ is often not what makes a book great – recently I have read about an orphan, shopping malls, the life of Achilles, a second marriage, a child in a poor estate in south London, and so on….

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting a research scientist from a large pharmaceutical company to shlep off to the Amazon to try to get a major research project back on track, and find out what happened to her colleague who had been despatched to do the same job some weeks earlier. But State of Wonder isn’t just about any of those things, is it? It will be about different things to different people I’m sure, but for me it’s about where you belong, and about loss and being lost. And found. And about parenthood. It’s about dreams. And nightmares. About ideals and compromise; about hopes, dreams and desires. It’s beautifully written, evoking the intense heat and sheer ‘foreign-ness’ of arriving in a town on the Amazon. The main characters are all women and all strong women, but each with their own vulnerabilities. Ann P is so good at drawing characters, people you feel you know from the first encounter with them, and then as you read, you just get to know them better.

I studied science many years ago. In my naivety at school I had hoped to be a research scientist, discovering the cures for all the world’s ills, or at least cancer (AIDS hadn’t appeared in our lives at that point. Yes, I’m that old!). So, I studied for a degree in Medicinal Chemistry. And quickly realised that I would never work for a large pharmaceutical company and would never discover any cures. I’d already worked out that scientific research probably wasn’t my vocation in life (really? I have to do exactly the same experiment over and over and over again every day for weeks and weeks and weeks just tweaking at the different components and reporting on any changes? How dull). But when the pharma companies started the ‘milk round’ of recruitment of fresh young graduates the remaining vestiges of that enthusiastic naivety and hope for the future died. They were oh so proud of a drug they had produced which reduced the symptoms of ulcers (and therefore made them lots of $$$ from stressed American businessmen). In the very next sentence they told us they were cancelling all research into a drug which had the potential in the future to eradicate a third world disease (was it cholera? Malaria? Or something altogether different, I can’t recall). But it would never make them any money. So the research was being pulled.

State of Wonder reminded me of my earlier self, and the erosion of my state of wonder. But I’m glad I’m not a research scientist. I would have been pretty rubbish at it, and I never looked good in a white coat anyway.

The Forgotten Waltz

19 May

A colleague has lent her kindle to a mutual friend who is in hospital. As a result she is buying REAL books and lending out ones she loves. So, on a recent trip to London and Brighton she bought The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, and by the time she’d returned to Edinburgh she had finished it and was desperate for me to read it so we could talk about it.

And I’m SO pleased she lent it to me to read; it’s a great book. I’m not giving anything away by telling you it’s about an Irish woman who is having an affair with a married man. And yes, it absolutely is about that. It’s about the course of the relationship, from the moment she first sees him at the bottom of her sister’s garden at a barbecue…. I won’t say where it goes, as I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Except that in many ways, the story isn’t what I found so remarkable about this book. Gina, who is having the affair, is the narrator. She is an IT professional in her mid 30s. Her husband is a like-able bear of a man. Her lover has ‘too beautiful’ eyes and a daughter who is captivating and strange.  The writer captures the detail of the emotional roller-coaster the adulterer goes through. But more than that she captures the minutiae of daily life, down to the noise made by the rubber strip as you pull open the fridge door.

By the end of the novel the economic boom has bust. But has the same happened to the relationship? Read it and find out.

The Forgotten Waltz has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction; it’s the second of this year’s shorltist that I’ve read, so watch this space for the remaining books. They are on my wishlist.

My Lover’s Lover

2 May

I went to a World Book Night event last week (or possibly the week before) with Maggie O’Farrell and Jenny Brown.

I read Esme Lennox years ago, and didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I didn’t hate it either so I read Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book before I went to the live event. I was glad I had: I loved the book and I felt that I got more out of the event having read it.

Anyway, that’s all some background to say that after the event I decided I really wanted to read another, and so I picked My Lover’s Lover off my shelf, where it had been languishing for some years and started it.

I feel somewhat disappointed now, but also cheered by the thought that the author is probably getting better with each book she has written.

My Lover’s Lover is a Rebecca-like tale of Lily and her new lover, Marcus. And Lily’s obsession with Sinead, who is ‘no longer with us’ … but was very much with Marcus until recently. Lily narrates the first part of the novel, and like the new Mrs de Winter seems to be a bit of a mouse of a creature, who ends up in bed with the glamorous,older architect, Marcus, living in the warehouse apartment he designed himself. She starts seeing Sinead everywhere, and believes her ghost has come back to tell her something.

For me, the warehouse apartment is almost the strongest character in the book (more echoes of Rebecca with Manderley?).


I wonder if my disappointment in this book was related to the fact I’d loved the live event so much? Or that I had just read both Rebecca and Rebecca’s Tale? It certainly drew from Rebecca, with the two lovers even watching Hitchcock’s Rebecca in an early scene in the book.

I’m now reading Oliver Twist for book group, but think that the next book should be Ewan Morrison’s Menage. I like reading books that feel as though they have some link with what you’ve just read, and this seems perfect.

Spicy turmeric chicken

2 May

I love recipe books, and have a relatively large collection. One I’ve owned for a while, but have cooked little from is Leon’s Naturally Fast Food. It’s a beautiful thing, lovely design (although will it seem very dated when I look back at it in 10 years time?) and some great recipes for making fast, fresh food.

This morning before I left for work I had a quick flick through the recipes and decided to make their South Indian Pepper Chicken. It’s a beautifully simple recipe, and pretty low fat, so it’s my kinda healthy too.

South Indian Pepper Chicken

  • A drizzle of olive oil (use the stuff from the spray bottle if you care, otherwise use about a teaspoonful)
  • About 500g skinless, boneless chicken thighs, diced
  • Maldon sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 garlic cloves chopped
  • about 1″ root ginger, chopped fine
  • 1 large onion, cut in half, then sliced finely to give thin crescent shapes
  • a heaped tsp turmeric
  • 2 tomatoes, roughly diced
  1. Heat the oil in large frying pan, add the chicken pieces, then sprinkle on a good pinch of sea salt and LOTS of black pepper. Stir it about then add some more black pepper
  2. Cook for a few minutes, till the chicken browns. Then tip it out of the pan into a bowl and set aside
  3. Add the garlic, onion, ginger and turmeric to the pan and cook for a couple of minutes
  4. Add the tomatoes and a good glug of water and stir together
  5. Add the chicken back into the pan and cook with a lid on for about 10 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked. Take the lid off and reduce the sauce down a little if it’s all too wet still.
Serve with rice and kale. I had no rice in the flat, so had it with noodles instead and it was bloody lovely. This is enough to serve 2 or 3, depending how hungry you are, and what you’re serving it with.

More reading

24 Apr

I’ve been busy over the last few months, which is probably why I haven’t written much on here of late. But it’s not all been going out and having fun, or staying home and gardening. There’s been time for a bit of reading.. so here’s what I’ve read since Pigeon English (which seems oh so long ago now).

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

This was a book group book, and was one which I doubt I would have read if it wasn’t for book group… and it’s unlikely I would have finished it once I started if it wasn’t for that peer pressure. Having said that, once I had finally finished it I had no desire to discuss it and so never went to the book group meeting (which I know is naughty, but I’m a grown up and surely I’m allowed to not go to things if I don’t want to go to them?). The next book is Oliver Twist which I’m looking forward to, having never actually read any Dickens in my life. Oh the shame!

The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson

I’d read a review of this book a while ago, over Christmas I think, and had made a note to read it at some point. I didn’t know much about it, except that it takes place in a small Sussex village and details the mundane minutiae of their day to day lives. The characters are so beautifully drawn, that you really get to feel what it might be like to be in their skin. There is the local vicar who is no longer sure of his christian faith, there is the woman of a certain age who is infatuated by her young neighbour, a schoolboy in thrall to the school bully, the single mother who can’t resist her ex, and a murdered poodle. The lives are entwined, overlapping and coming together, in the way real lives do butt up against one another and then continue on their way.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan

I heard Michael Pollan on Radio 4, on The Food Programme a few weeks ago. He was talking a lot of  sense about how we, in the west, no longer instinctively know what to eat. Food scientists or nutritionists tell us what the superfoods are and what foods have omega 3 or certain vitamins, or whatever the latest ‘good’ thing is. It used to be fibre, which at least was easier for an ordinary human to identify. He likened this to a religion – the food scientists are the High Priests who tell us the gospel; there is Good (omega 3 / vitamins) and Evil (fat / sugar).

Michael Pollan makes it much easier. His rule is

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

This book is a distilled version of his In Defence of Food (or so I’ve been told). It makes sense. It’s full of good advice. Now I need to follow it.
And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson
I’ve not finished this yet, so will write more on it at a later date. 
52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You by Brett Blumenthal
Damn you kindle and your clever ways of making me buy more books!  This was suggested as a book I might like at the end of the Michael Pollan book. Well, I didn’t buy it immediately, but I read a few reviews and decided there could be no harm in buying it. Or reading it. 
So, here I am, each week reading one chapter of a self-help book. So far I have upped my intake of water each day, got more hours sleep each night and started taking a multi-vitamin again. All these are good. I’ve also attempted to be a bit more active, and kept a food diary for a week. 
The suggestions are good, and I like the idea of making a small change each week, and then once it feels like a habit (which it should after 7 days) you move onto the next small change. Sadly I’ve not been as brilliant at forming new habits as I’d like to be. Anyway, I’ll give a final review of this at the end of 52 weeks. And we’ll see if I really am healthier and happier. 
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
It was World Book Night last night (and more of that some other time), and Edinburgh Central Library hosted an event with Maggie O’Farrell, interviewed by the fabulous Jenny Brown. I’d only read one MO’F novel before: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I hadn’t loved it. It had felt more ‘slight’ than I had expected, and so although I have a copy of My Lover’s Lover on my shelf I’d not been tempted to pick it up and read it. 
But I decided it would be worth reading her latest novel before the event last night so I downloaded The Hand That First Held Mine onto my kindle and started it. I LOVED it. It’s set in London, in the 1950s and in the present day, following two women: Lexie in the 1950s and Elina in the present day. I’m a little bit in love with Lexie, and the Soho of the 1950s which she inhabits. 
It was interesting to hear Maggie O’Farrell describe how she started this book with the character of Lexie, a character who had been swimming about in her head for awhile, and came into sharp focus when she went to the John Deakin photography exhibition a couple of years ago. Lexie superimposed herself into his black and white images of his friends and neighbours in Soho in the 50s. And as she was writing, Elina kept on interrupting her writing, like an old radio that keeps picking up a signal from another station (or the police or CB when I was wee). Thus the two stories intertwined into this great novel. 
After reading this I felt I just had to re-read Rebecca. Now, I pretty much never re-read books. Why read any again, when there are so many more un-read books still to read? But The Hand made me really want to re-visit Rebecca, and then Rebecca’s Tale. Was it the issues of identity, of searching for the truth of your childhood? 
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I first read this many many years ago. I loved it. And I loved the Hitchcock movie. Has no-one else made the movie since? You’d think they would have. 
Re-reading Rebecca was comfortingly familiar, but also unfamiliar enough to feel new and exciting. I’d forgotten that we never know the second Mrs De Winter’s name. And I’d forgotten what a dreadful little mouse of a thing she is – she is no heroine, and Max De Winter is no hero. Rebecca is the star. Rebecca and Manderley. 
The version I read (on kindle) had a thought-provoking afterword by Sally Beauman, the writer of Rebecca’s Tale.  
Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman
This is effectively the prequel to Rebecca. It’s a fascinating imagining of what Rebecca’s life was like, and I’m so glad that I read it back to back with Rebecca this time. It was definitely worth a re-read while the original story was fresh in my mind.  

Pigeon English

15 Feb

This is a piece of Peckham’s peace wall. It was created on a boarded shop window after the riots in London in August 2011. It’s beautiful and meaningful, and I hope made a difference. 
In Pigeon English Harri responds to the murder of a school colleague by trying to hunt for clues so he can identify the killer. Harri is an innocent, a boy about to become a man. But what kind of a man can he hope to be, brought up in this violent, aggressive, unkind environment?
Harri would have loved the Peckham peace wall. 

Resistance by Owen Sheers

2 Feb
Cover of "Resistance"

I loved this book.

When I started it I knew nothing about it, nothing at all. A friend recommended it to me at our last book group gathering – in fact she suggested that we have a book group outing to see the movie of the book when it comes to the Cameo in Edinburgh later this month.  I like this plan.

And when a couple of days later I finished the current book, Resistance felt like the right next book to start. I’m slightly picky about what order I read books in, and never really decide which book will be my next book until I’ve actually finished the one I’m on.  (OK sometimes I read more than one at a time, but that doesn’t count). I downloaded Resistance onto my kindle on the train down to London – what a blissful piece of technology a kindle is! But more on that another time.  And possibly on another place. I need to tell you about our new blog.  I say ‘our’. The fabulous patothecity has set up edinburghbookgroup.  It’s a place for people to chatter about books. It’s in its infancy, so who knows where it might go, but I have visions of a virtual book group – a resource for people wanting to discuss what they’ve read, whether it is online or in their own local book group. Go have a look, join in by commenting if you feel like it…

But back to Resistance.

You’d expect Resistance to be beautifully written, given that the author is a poet, but I don’t think I was prepared for such an evocative book.  It’s set in the last months of the second world war, but it is a different second world war: Germany has invaded Britain and is winning. So,although there is a very strong sense of time, it’s not the time as we’ve seen it before, it is distorted by a dramatic change of circumstances.

The whole story is set in an isolated Welsh valley, opening one morning with the womenfolk of the valley who all wake up to discover that their menfolk have upped and left them in the middle of the night. The sense of loss is almost physical, with a recurring description of the imprint from his body on the mattress. But the women choose to go on as though nothing has happened; or perhaps there was little choice. Country life is hard, and life in the country during the dying days of a war are unbearably hard. Owen Sheers depicts that hardship beautifully.

If you want to see what else I’ve read this year, see my list.  If you have any recommendations for me, leave a comment.  Preferably not chick lit though.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

15 Jan

I started Jeanette Winterson’s latest book before Christmas, it was a paperback proof copy. I don’t usually like proofs, but this one is pretty much like an ordinary paperback, so it was fine and passed my criteria for readability.

But then I got a Kindle for Christmas.  Well, initially I got a Kinder Surprise!  The hints had been dropped, and clearly picked up, but through the Chinese whispers the desirable object had transformed itself into a wee plastic toy inside a small chocolate egg. Not a bad egg, but still a chocolate egg, and I don’t eat chocolate any more. Well, not much. But it certainly was a Surprise! It was also not the real present, and the Kindle-Not-Such-A-Surprise-Afterall came close behind the disappointing chocolate egg.

So, I had to try out my new gift straight away didn’t I? And that meant that the half-read Why Be Happy… lay forlorn for a few weeks until I had read the last book in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, and then also Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie which we will be discussing at book group this week.

But today I picked up Why Be Happy… again, and curled up on the sofa to read it. And I didn’t get up again until I’d finished.

What a book. For those that don’t know, this is a story of her life, the ‘true’ story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I read Oranges.. when it was first published all those years ago – last year was the 20th anniversary of its publication.

I remember reading it vividly. I had recently become a Samaritan volunteer, and discovered the fiction of both Jeanette Winterson and Jenny Diski – I voraciously read everything they published, loving their fictionalised worlds. As a Samaritan I was in a new world, of peoples’ emotions and feelings, of loss and despair, of love and rejection, but most of all a world full of expression. People were expressing their feelings to me, and it was rarely easy for them.  It was my role to help them, to hold them as they dug deep within themselves and talked about themselves in terms of their feelings. It felt absolutely right for me, this listening to others, being a vessel to hold their fears while they discovered what they’d been hiding for so long. I don’t know why it felt right, but it did. And an enormous privilege.

So, now coming full circle and reading Why Be Happy… I am reminded of those conversations, of the nameless, anonymous, faceless people who told me their secrets. I know how hard it was for them to open themselves to one single anonymous faceless individual. And I am blown away at how Jeanette Winterson has expressed so much emotion in a book, laying her emotions bare for all to read. It is a brave book. It is a glorious book, full of anger, and hurt, and longing. Deep, deep longing. It is about love, and the search for love. And about loss, and the loss of loss.

Read it.

But have a hankie ready.

Any suggestions for what to read next?

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