Review: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

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You may recall way back in April that I went to the Fashionably Late World Book Night party with author Frances Hardinge in tow? Well, there was talk of there being copies of her latest book, Cuckoo Song, available for buying and signing but due to a post office snafu those books never appeared.

Of course every author wants Eddie to pose with their book now...

Of course every author wants Eddie to pose with their book now…

Well, not long after this I was contacted by her publisher and asked if I wanted a copy for review. Of course I said yes…

Unfortunately, being a very busy person, I have lately been very slow to get reviews out so here we are in September and I am only just getting round to putting my thoughts on this book down in a readable form.

Cuckoo Song is set in the fictitious English town of Ellchester, somewhere in Oxfordshire during the early 1920s. The post Great war vibe portrayed here is perfect for release in a year that sees the centenary of that war and the setting is vividly portrayed. Triss is a young girl who lives with her father (a famous architect credited with designing much of the town they live in), mother and younger sister (Penny). Her brother, Sebastian, died in the Great War leaving a fiancée and a grieving family behind.

The story begins with Triss having been rescued from almost drowning in a lake while the family are away on holiday. Following this incident, strange things begin to happen to her. She has gaps in her memory and a bizarre hunger that can only be satisfied by devouring her own toys and clothes. As time goes on, this strangeness tests her relationship with her parents and sister and her investigations into what has happened to her lead her to discover that there is more to her brother’s death than she had been told. She also delves into a hidden underbelly of the town ruled by a sinister being known as ‘The Architect’ and encounters the strangeness of that world, learning its secrets and dangers.

Hardinge deftly presents both the setting and the plot in a skilful manner, peeling back layers of world building and mystery in a way which has the reader slowly become aware of what is going on. This approach maintains the mystery as subtle clues you did not consider relevant slot into place and trigger small ‘ah ha’ moments at intervals. The setting starts out with a Downton Abby feel, all stiff gentlemen and upper middle class pomposity overlaid with a quaint olde worlde children’s book vibe, but soon develops hints of a world beneath that which is related more to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – a dark, fey world of hidden evil and whimsy. The characters are also mostly well drawn and some, particularly Sebastian’s fiancée Violet and the Tailor Mr. Grace, are striking in their presence – the bold and adventurous, jazz loving  Flapper with the hidden sorrow and the quirky, friendly tailor with a sinister undertone. You come to care for Triss and the other characters, though Triss in her early appearances seems selfish and whiny she soon gains a backbone that turns her in to a true hero.

In all this was a very enjoyable read and one which I am sure children of all ages will enjoy.

D.A Lascelles is the author of Lurking Miscellany, Transitions (Mundania Press) and Gods of the Sea (Pulp Empires). He lives in Manchester UK. You can sometimes see him writing about Zombie porn on http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ but he mostly blogs about books, vampires, science fiction and Terry Pratchett. He is inordinately proud of the fact that one of his Pratchett articles was referenced on the French version of the author’s Wikipedia page.

He would like to point out that having Eddie pose with a copy of your book is a special privilege reserved for those who have met Eddie and given him a stroke.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DaLascelles

Twitter: @areteus

Buy Lurking Miscellany (paperback)

Buy Lurking Miscellany (Kindle)

What to wear…

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As regular readers will already know, I have been to a few public events over the last year or so. I am now a regular at the Leeds Steampunk market (in a vague, loose coalition operating under the title of the Tea Society with Ninfa Hayes and R.A Smith and others) and at World book night I did a reading in the Fab café in Manchester. Now, this coming weekend I am going to be at the Stockton Literary festival…

Me with Starburst columnist Ed Fortune in front of a TARDIS.

Me with Starburst columnist Ed Fortune in front of a TARDIS.

The problem is that I have absolutely no idea what to wear.

You see, for Steampunk it is easy. I actually have quite a selection of waistcoats and cravats and could even go so far as to get a top hat should I feel it necessary (I haven’t so far, mainly stuck with the waistcoat and cravat look and a gentleman would never wear a hat indoors…). Ok, I am not up there with the dedicated goggles and nerf guns with cogs on brigade but I can dress well enough to look like I belong. Most of the traders there are steampunked up to a greater or lesser extent and while there are usually many ‘non steampunks’ in the crowd, you don’t look like an idiot – the only person wearing costume.

For World book night I might have had the ‘what to wear’ dilemma. However, the necessity of having to go straight from work to the venue (via the train station to pick up Frances Hardinge) meant that I was more or less limited to wearing what I wore at work. Since that day also coincidentally happened to be the day a member of the Royal Family was visiting work, this meant I was in a rather more formal shirt and tie than normal. In the photos you can even see the cufflinks. Though I had taken off the jacket and tie by that point.

me2But Stockton is not Steampunk nor is it right after a royal visit. I therefore have more or less free choice in what to wear. This means I am being indecisive. I could do the casual jeans and nerdy t-shirt that I usually wear when not at work. I could also do a more smart casual look – a shirt with jeans. So long as I avoid looking like David Cameron on holiday (which is a fate worse than death in many areas) I will probably be ok… But then I am wondering if I shouldn’t dress up more – bring out the waistcoat and cravat look or go in an even more bizarre costume? There are rumours of cosplay possibly happening there, after all and Blake Northcott recently did a con in Canada dressed as a sexy female Spiderman…

So, while I ponder these issues, I’d love to know your opinions. How do you expect a writer to be dressed when you meet them? What have authors you have met worn for cons and events? How much does a writer’s clothing matter?

And those of you in the UK, feel free to pop up to Stockton on Tees on the 6th of September for a lot of fun…

literary festival

D.A Lascelles is the author of Lurking Miscellany, Transitions (Mundania Press) and Gods of the Sea (Pulp Empires). He lives in Manchester UK. You can sometimes see him writing about Zombie porn on http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ but he mostly blogs about books, vampires, science fiction and Terry Pratchett. He is inordinately proud of the fact that one of his Pratchett articles was referenced on the French version of the author’s Wikipedia page.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DaLascelles

Twitter: @areteus

Buy Lurking Miscellany (paperback)

Buy Lurking Miscellany (Kindle)

Labyrinth Literary Festival

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On September 6th I will be in Stockton on Tees attending a book festival. Click the image below for more details. There will be readings both from Transitions and Lurking Miscellany and the chance to get signed books from a range of UK based authors.

If you are a UK based author and you want in on this festival, there are still spaces. Bring some books, some swag and prepare to do a reading to an appreciative audience.

literary festival

Morganville – SDCC trailer

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As you should all know by now, I am a big fan of the Morganville series of novels by Rachel Caine. So much so that I became a backer for the Kickstarter campaign that aimed to produce a Webcast show of the series. I guess that makes me a producer (I am opting for the title of Chief Executive Producer in charge of giving over a small amount of cash to help make this happen). Anyway, the trailer for this series was released at San Diego Comic Con and while I was not there to see it myself, I did get sent an exclusive link to see it because of my backer involvement… so here it is:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwUtF-P6cqs

Of course they did not follow my casting picks. I guess David Tennant was not available to play Myrnin and Anthony Stewart Head was not able to play Oliver. However, looking at the trailer you can see some stellar choices made. In particular you may recognise Amber Benson of Buffy fame as Amelia and Robert Picardo (yes, THAT Robert Picardo of Voyager fame in a grey wig) as Oliver.

So it is all looking promising and reasonably close to the source material. About the only thing I have spotted so far that is possibly different is that if this series is following book 1 they are introducing Myrnin too soon but since he is awesome I cannot see an issue with that…

So, yes, in my opinion (as Chief Executive Producer in charge of giving over a small amount of cash to help make this happen) you should totally check this out when it airs… especially if you like Buffy, Vampires or Voyager.

D.A Lascelles is the author of Lurking Miscellany, Transitions (Mundania Press) and Gods of the Sea (Pulp Empires). He lives in Manchester UK. You can sometimes see him writing about Zombie porn on http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ but he mostly blogs about books, vampires, science fiction and Terry Pratchett. He is inordinately proud of the fact that one of his Pratchett articles was referenced on the French version of the author’s Wikipedia page.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DaLascelles

Twitter: @areteus

Buy Lurking Miscellany (paperback)

Buy Lurking Miscellany (Kindle)

 

 

Slayers LRP Photoshoot

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Two Slayers…

Those who follow this blog will be aware that I occasionally collaborate with Quattrofoto on photoshoots in roles varying from creative genius* to lightstand/dogsbody/maker of tea. In fact, some of my previous blog posts on these shoots have been among the most popular on this blog along with the UK Avengers concept I posted once as a joke. I can only assume that lots of genuine photographers have been searching for useful tips on how to do complicated lighting set ups or edit fantasy scenes into the backdrops using photoshop and are instead finding my rather less then technical witterings.

Those who are looking at these posts in the hope of such technical stuff, I can only apologise and suggest you ask any questions in a comment (I will pass on such questions to Ste the photographer) or visit his Flickr site where he occasionally posts technical details on shots.

Note that yet again, like previous posts on this, the photos shown here are my efforts not those of the professional photographer. You can see his on his Flickr account. In addition, most of these were taken using my mobile phone rather than my DSLR Mainly because the light conditions were not right for my DSLR to play ball.

This shoot was one that deviated from our previous theme, which had been variations on a theme of fantasy – trying to show standard stereotypes in a new light. For this shoot the aim was more modern. There is a new LRP game being planned called Slayers LRP which riffs off Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So our aim for this shoot was to get lots of photos of female vampire hunters, vicious looking vampires, demons and stuffy old Watchers.

We convened at the photographer’s house where he had managed to set up a makeshift studio in one of the larger rooms. The space here was noticeably less than we were used to in the studio, which meant we were limited in scope – mostly shots of single figures and we were told most likely only upper body. This was why we actually failed to consider appropriate shoes or boots for many of the characters we were taking shots of, we genuinely did not think they would be seen on camera! This is why you may see some shots of a tweed clad Watcher wearing a pair of sandals (though personally I am claiming eccentricity for why I was wearing those as that character).

There were other concerns. Would the backdrop placed over the window be enough to sufficiently block out all the light? Would there be enough room for models, photographer and light rig? Would there be enough food for all the models we had dragged from far distant parts of the country?

The answers to those questions were Yes, Yes and definitely Yes. Seriously, we had a proper Green room style hospitality area set up, far better than anything we ever had at the studio (or the woodland, where the refreshments were coffee and all the acorns we could eat :) )

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Our werewolves are feistier and cuter than Oz ever was

Our werewolves are feistier and cuter than Oz ever was

We progressed through the day very quickly, getting through several very intense sessions with different models in different costumes. This was our fourth go at this sort of thing and using more or less the same team of models and support people that had been used on previous shoots – including the talented make up skills of Jessica Newey. This meant that we were much better organised and were able to prep one model while another was being shot, allowing for a much more efficient

The studio set up showing improvised wind effects

The studio set up showing improvised wind effects

turnaround. We were also more au fait with what was and was not likely to be possible meaning that the ideas people spent less time frothing about things that could not possibly ever work and more time considering practical solutions to problems and ideas that would work.

We got through a Van Helsing style Vampire Hunter, a goth Vampire, two different styles of Slayer (though there was some debate as which one was the ‘evil’ Faith style Slayer and which was the ‘nice’ Buffy style, the consensus was neither), two different varieties of Watcher (modern with a tablet computer and traditional in tweed with an old book), a sinister ‘Man in Black’, two styles of witch (a good and an evil one) and two very different styles of Demon (a serious, scary demon with horns and a more ‘slacker surf dude’ style who seemed to be doing a modelling shoot for Cheese flavoured corn snacks) and a werewolf. These shots are already appearing on the Flickr account and will continue to be updated for at least a few weeks ahead.

It was another tiring day but definitely a fun one with a lot achieved. The shots that have already been produced are awesome and there are many more to come…

*Ok, maybe not creative genius. More ‘person who comes up with wildly impossible ideas that sound cool in my head but are actually bloody hard to set up in a practical sense’. It is a complicated brief… I am usually better at holding lightstands (or on this shoot, reflective dishes that shine in the face of pretty girls to better highlight her features – something called the Clamshell technique) or making tea. I am really good at making tea…

Lurking Miscellany release

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The release of Lurking Miscellany was on Saturday in Leeds, so now it is time to open up the book to the rest of the world.

The blurb (written for me by the wonderful Ninfa Hayes):

“It’s you!” She stood up and backed away, pointing accusingly at Orchil. “You’re doing this to me! You’re using some form of… of… magic.” What else could explain it? A spell, a curse, an inexplicable phenomenon. Magic!

Orchil laughed. “You really that stupid? I thought you followed the great god, Science? Sit, girl, sit and let me tell you how the trick was done. And that’s a rare thing, a Shaman explaining their magic, so you better listen well!”LurkingMiscellany-lg

An environmental activist with the power to control the elements;

A xeno-anthropologist Gate Tech seeking to learn the secrets of an alien race;

A shape changing fey playing havoc in a nightclub.

These are just some of the characters that live in the shadows of the secret worlds that surround us. Discover their stories in this enthralling anthology. Embrace the lurking miscellany.

If you want to acquire a copy of this collection of short stories you can do so in one of two ways.

First (and quickest) method is to go via Lulu and order a copy from their online shop. The link for this is to be found on my webpage under publications. I have even made it easy for you with a quick and simple buy link that gets you straight there.

The second method is to contact me either through this page (comment below) or on facebook or via my email address (dalascelles-writing@yahoo.co.uk) and ask me for a copy. You can even ask me to sign it for you if you like.
 
It is hoped that there will be more places to buy from soon. Just negotiating the delicate issues of self publication (which is totally new to me at the moment so learning a lot) and working through all possible routes of delivery and format. Hoping for Amazon listing to be available soon, for example. I will keep you all informed as to when a new way to purchase a copy emerges. Will at some point also be considering ebook formats too, though I think that may take a while as I suspect there will have to be a lot of formatting changes to make it work.
 
Also worth knowing that this collection is intended as a taster and also a chance for readers to tell me which story they liked the best. The one that gets the most votes will be developed further as a longer piece of fiction – either as a series of short stories/novellas or a complete novel. Once you have acquired a copy you can cast your vote by contacting me using the methods outlined in the Afterword. You can also post in the comments to this blog post.
 
 

 

Fresh off the press!


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Yesterday I took delivery of a batch of copies of Lurking Miscellany… A week earlier than expected.

These are the ones with the cover misprint (I noticed too late to cancel) and so are an official ‘limited edition’ of ten prints. I’ll correct the problem for the next batch.

Eddie is disappointed because he does not feature in this… Unlike Transitions where he had a small but (he believes) critically important role.

These copies will be on sale next weekend at the Leeds waterfront festival…

[Spoilers] Twisting the cliche

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I am guessing that most people out there have watched the recent episode (series 4, episode 8) of Game of Thrones by now? If not, you may want to look away and come back when you have as there may be spoilers ahead… I am delaying posting this blog a few days to help prevent this but I am worried there may still be those out there who haven’t seen it even then.

You see, I want to talk about clichés here. In particular, I want to talk about how they might be of benefit to a writer. They are often seen in a bad light – ‘don’t write that, it’s too clichéd’ is a common refrain. However, attempts to make things more original often fail to get anywhere. So, being clichéd is bad because it is too derivative of previous works whereas being original can also be bad because the readers do not connect with the material, finding it too strange or unfamiliar. There is also, of course, the very relevant truth that there are no new stories, only old ones retold. When you do find something you think is original, quite often it turns out to be derived from another source you maybe only barely remember* or coincidentally happens to follow the lines of a much older story.

So what is a writer in search of originality to do? How can you maintain the very fine balance between cliché and the familiar? The answer seems to be to twist the cliché in order to subvert the audiences’ expectations.

Now Game of Thrones as a series and as a set of novels is actually not all that original in terms of the fantasy concepts it throws up. It includes a lot of old standbys – dragons, quests, knights, barbarians, battles, pantheons of gods, young children going off on quests (actually it has several of these…), the list goes on. However, fantasy was for many years a very staid and static genre where everyone was trying hard to be Tolkien (so many elves living in forests, so many dwarves living in mines) so in many ways even small changes from these clichés is a bonus and GRR Martin’s does manage to do this very well, mostly by making the characters very realistic and three dimensional. He also manages to avoid Elves and his only dwarf is a human who just happens to have been born short rather than a member of an ancient, gold obsessed race. But he does more than this, he often twists expectations so that what you think is going to happen doesn’t. There are a few examples of this I could mention, one of which is this week’s big shock end (which I admit was not a shock to anyone who read the books).

Let’s take Robb Stark to begin with. In the second series his story looked like it was well mapped out in cliché land. He was the eldest son of a man executed for treason, raising an army to defeat those who had killed his father and fighting against a mad king to boot. In your old fashioned fantasy epic the conflict therefore becomes Stark vs Lannister and in that tale the only ending cliché would accept is Robb winning and becoming king. Subconsciously we all know this. Robb has to win, it is imprinted in everyone’s understanding of story. The hero prince sets out on a quest to avenge his father’s death… come on, we have seen this story a million times.

And yet that is not how things work out… instead Robb makes a political error, a very human one, and as a result is murdered during the infamous Red Wedding, leaving no one in a position to lead his rebellion which crumbles.

Another example is the trial by combat in this week’s episode. To be honest, I was a little sceptical of Tyrion managing to get away with the same trick twice.** Remember, he used trial by combat to get out of a previous murder rap and honestly no writer would allow a character to get away with something that audacious again. So I was sort of expecting there to be an ending that did not include Tyrion’s champion walking away unscathed. However, that combat threw another revenge based cliché at us – the brother of a murdered woman seeking vengeance on the man who killed her. Again the story imprinted in our bones screams at us ‘of course he is going to win!’ and I don’t know about you but I was certainly seeing good old Mandy Pantinkin in his most famous role as Inigo Montoya in that scene and we all know how that works out rather well. And for a moment it looks as if he will win. He actually does win, in fact. His enemy is down and helpless. Then there is a sudden change in fortune… Again, he makes a critical error, an error based on his human nature. Had he merely killed his enemy he would have won. Instead he had to gloat and therefore lost spectacularly.

Both examples given show how characters are being set up by the author (and in some cases the script writers of the series in some of the material that is newly added) to apparently be following a clichéd path. They even get some way down that path, enough for our minds as readers or viewers to spot the pattern (however consciously or subconsciously) and expect a particular outcome. Then something happens, often a very human mistake, which completely throws that pattern out of the window and the nature of the plot changes – we are horrified by this because the person set up as the hero cannot lose and yet they do. This, I feel, is the main reason these scenes cause such outcry. It is not just because of the gore, it is because of the cognitive dissonance of our well trodden clichés being suddenly wrenched from under us. This is also why it is seen as innovative, despite being riddled with tropes. The places where the expected outcomes are subverted are ones that stick in the mind and suddenly the writer is a genius for doing it. Even an occasional scene like this can be enough to plaster over the many occasions where the writer does follow the standard tales. These scenes also increase the tension because, dammit, even characters you previously believed safe because of some perceived ‘hero’ status can die. Its been happening in SF TV for a while now. A famous example is Mal’s innovative method of resolving the infamous Mexican standoff (clue: Mal definitely shot first, no Han Solo/Greebo confusion here) and recent series like Battlestar Galactica have been constantly violating our expectations with respect to the relative safety of those afforded supposed hero status.

All of this makes me somewhat concerned over the safety of other characters in Game of Thrones. After all, several of them are clearly on clichéd fantasy hero paths. For example, Arya and Bran Stark are each following slightly different classic versions of the typical child hero in a fantasy novel. They each quest to understand themselves and their abilities in order so that they may return some day to wreak revenge on those who murdered their families. A cliché that was old when George Lucas used it. The cliché says that they should succeed. This means that something nasty and fatal awaits them in their future.

Unless, of course, it is by now considered cliché to subvert the cliché which means that, now, it is perfectly fine to let things follow their normal course and let the children achieve their destiny. Sometimes fashions in writing can change so quickly and soon we may well be expecting the opposite to what the story should be… Thinking of such things can easily send someone insane.

For now, the best advice seems to be to be aware of tropes and clichés and try to figure out ways to use the expectations of readers to your advantage.

*This happened to me at least once that I am aware of. When I was writing the background and concepts behind one of the race of aliens in Waypoint I knew I was stealing from Celtic, Native American and Norse myth and was good with that. However, when I wrote about their attitude to technology I unconsciously inserted several ideas from an obscure Doctor Who short story (the People of the Trees), mainly the idea of them worshipping technology as religious icons capable of ‘magic’. I only became aware of this when I re-read that story several years later and the penny dropped. I did change it enough that no one can see where I filed away the serial numbers (and besides it is a common enough concept with primitive cultures in SF that I could just have easily stolen it from Return of the Jedi) but it was fascinating to see how my mind was working there.

** Plus my wife who has read the books as far as the current series knew it wouldn’t work either, despite her rants about all the changes they have made in this series so far, and although she tried hard not to reveal anything I can read her responses well enough to spot certain facial expressions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Review] Primal Storm

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Primal Storm (Book 2 of the Grenshall Manor Chronicles)
By R.A Smith
Published by Xychler Publishing

This sequel sees the aftermath to last year’s Oblivion Storm and our heroes Mary, Jennifer and Kara are adjusting to their new lives. Mary has taken full possession of Grenshall manor and has spent most of her time learning about her new found abilities over ghosts and nursing the almost fatally wounded Jennifer. Kara has been finding her skills as a paranormal expert becoming more in demand.

Then, Jennifer, feeling trapped by her status as an invalid and needing to stretch her legs, sneaks out to exercise and stumbles onto a very well organised robbery of the British museum run by a crack team of supernaturals. Her intervention in this and her resemblance to a figure in a work of art known as ‘The Face of War’ leads her into a conspiracy of secret societies, supernatural artefacts and a confrontation with her own past and true nature.

Unlike Oblivion Storm, which focussed on Mary and her connection to the realms of shadow, Primal Storm is almost entirely Jennifer’s show. As such it is a very different story that veers away from the spooky events occurring between an atmospheric Victorian London and the modern day and into an action orientated plot. Several scenes come across as more like an X Men movie than a paranormal horror as Jennifer Winter tears into her enemies Wolverine style. Likewise, the flashbacks are not to Victorian London but to Jennifer’s childhood where a history of abuse and accusations of murder lead her to becoming the woman she is and explain her connection to the mysterious and vibrant Primal realm. Meanwhile, Mary and Kara travel Europe on a mission to rescue Jennifer and encountering a variety of characters on the way including the very same supernaturals that Jennifer is involved with and someone with the very same abilities Mary has.

The loss of spooky atmosphere could have been a weakness here but it is more than made up for by the change of pace, including the dark and violent nature of Jennifer’s past. The flashback scenes are brutal and honest and reveal a woman who has risen from extreme adversity into her eventual greatness. However, one weakness that is apparent is Smith’s presentation of some characters. While all the female characters come across as strong, three dimensional creations his male characters seem to lack depth. Having said that, at least one of them showed a lot of promise and if he is to return for book 3 it can be hoped that there will be a chance to develop him some more. This would be a good thing as it is nice to see a character of colour represented in a non clichéd way.

Overall Primal Storm is an enjoyable read. It holds onto enough elements of Oblivion Storm to make it a familiar setting but then takes off into new directions that explore and expand on that setting a great deal. According to Smith himself, the plan for book three (as yet unnamed but I am guessing the word Storm will be in there somewhere) is to focus on Kara – the one non-supernatural member of our trio of heroes. I for one am intrigued to see how she develops in this final instalment. If her back story is anywhere as interesting as Jennifer’s we are in for one hell of a finale.

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