MORE to BROWSE - Pages that might be of Interest

Monday 28 May 2018


by my guest:  Shaun Ivory

We live in a world of seemingly frantic brain-teasing, nut-puzzling anxiety. Never before has so much thought and effort gone into making our brains work. Those ‘leetle grey cells’ beloved of Hercule Poirot have never been so activated – one might even say agitated. We are told how crucial it is – not only to our minds’ health but our very longevity. Who doesn’t want to live an extra day, another hour…one more minute?         

The example of mathematicians is trotted out, that section of society who reputedly live the longest. Because mathematicians use their brains almost continuously to solve problems and never really give up the habit, even after retirement, it is therefore suggested that it is the brain’s condition that determines the body’s continuance. 

There is no escape if you are even moderately literate; magazines, quizzes, TV, newspapers… Newspapers! One British national daily tabloid has a Coffee Break section with no less than 18 crosswords, codewords, sudokus, kakuros – and  all those other Oriental variations in between. Some coffee break! Another broadsheet has around 50 in its weekend offering.  Add in the runaway success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and you have that strange phenomenon – a craze.

 So what about the Voynich Manuscript then? Sorry, the?… Come again? The Voynich Manuscript is the only man-made code that has never been broken. No human genius or electronic computer has cracked it and it’s not for the want of trying. Imagine a book written in an unknown alphabet, in an unknown language, at an unknown date and place…by an unknown person or persons. But with loads of illustrations. You would be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t be that hard.

Its known history is brief but intriguing. In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich, a rare book collector, bought a number of medieval manuscripts from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, Frascati in Italy. It turned out to have originally belonged to the Collegium Romanum.  Attached to the manuscript was a letter in Latin dated 1666 from Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, Rector of Prague University.  Among these was a 235-page manuscript written in what appeared to be an unknown language or cipher.

A head picture of Wilfrid Voynich in glasses
Wilfrid M. Voynich
 It is thought to have been written between 1450 and 1520 but – like everything else about it – this too is less than certain. Its probable authorship is also up for grabs; everyone from that period – Roger Bacon, John Dee, Edward Kelley in Elizabethan times most notably – and on down through a bewildering list of less-than-usual suspects.

The pages are approximately ten inches by seven, vellum, the script with a quill pen, the illustrations…we-ell, now we’re getting to it. They range from the astronomical to biological to cosmological to herbal and on to pharmaceutical, in the brightest colours and sometimes the most explicit detail. The astronomical sections drift into the astrological (not too divorced from each other in medieval times) with conventional zodiacal constellations, each symbol surrounded by exactly 30 female figures, most of them naked.

The biological part is a dense continuous text – which nobody can read yet – interspersed with mainly small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes. The cosmological section contains more circular diagrams, of an obscure nature, with what appear to be ‘islands’ connected by ‘causeways’, ‘castles’ and a ‘volcano’.

The herbal bit is probably the most visual, with exotic plants in great detail that seem to have withstood the test of time, although there is some doubt about those being dated from the original. The pharmaceutical part includes more isolated plants, roots or leaves and objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins.

The text consists of over 170,00 characters or glyphs, which in themselves present a great problem for cryptographers; practically no “word” is longer than 10 letters and very few contain only one or two letters. Some characters seem to be Latin but not quite, others might stem from various European alphabets of the 15th century. Just to screw up any patterns that a clever clogs might start to detect, you come across the names of ten months (March to December) written in Latin script. But experts intone that these latter were inserted at some later date and therefore do not…compute!

So just how difficult is it to understand? The top professional American and British codebreakers who cut their teeth, so to speak, on the Enigma and Ultra codes in World War II failed to decipher a single word. The sheer randomness of the text defeated them. This failure of course gave rise to much controversy as to the actual validity of the writing as a form of code of any kind. This in turn made the manuscript not only a famous subject of historical cryptology but it also gave weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax. But by whom…and for what? 

Theories abound: the manuscript is not one but two distinct “languages”, it has been written in two “hands”, meaning it has more than one author. Another suggestion further muddies the textual waters by upping the ante to five or even eight different originators. Or the whole thing is a forgery anyway, sold early on for 300 ducats (£12,000) to the strange Emperor Rudolf II, who surrounded himself with dwarfs and giants. In 1990 a multi-disciplinary group of varying size, generally between 100-200 individuals, pledged to decipher it. They were dispersed all around the globe and connected through the Internet, maintaining an electronic mail forum on the decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript. This was with the avowed intention of developing a machine-readable representation of the text.

So far?...

* * * 

Shaun Ivory
Shaun Ivory was born and raised in a seaside town not unlike that which is described in Friends of my Father. In 1951 at age 16 he joined the RAF as a boy airman, studying ground radio and radar, and served in UK and Malta.

On discharge he became a radio troubleshooter with Ferguson Radio and then telephone exchange faultfinder with GEC Telecommunications, before being picked as a Key Worker to covert to Instrumentation Technician at ICI Wilton UK. He  later worked with Shell in the North Sea.

He began writing radio scripts about life on an oil rig. These were broadcast on the BBC and RTE in Ireland. Shaun has written numerous short stories, articles and even scripts for TV (never produced) with modest success. His second novel The Judas Cup was independently published. As well as the partly autobiographical Friends of My Father he has published his Wild West to Hollywood chronicles, America Made Me (Duty and Dishonor, Killing Kiowas and Bad Company .

About The Judas Cup: An exciting supernatural thriller set in and around the North York Moors. Almost 2000 years ago, Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Over the centuries that silver has been melted down and wrought into satanic instruments, most recently a chalice, the ‘Judas Cup’. This unholy grail, which has been sought by many, fought over – even held in the Vatican vaults for a time – is once again up for grabs, and now there’s a desperate race to find it. Jake Ransome, fledgling reporter, is investigating several mysterious deaths, all linked to an occult ritual gone terribly wrong, and a church that will soon disappear forever in a flooded valley. How is the beautiful but enigmatic heiress involved? Why is her multi-millionaire mentor so intent on getting her back? As dramatic events unfold only Jake stands as her shield before such a powerful and ruthless man. For Sir Nicholas Brookes it’s a quest that can have only one ending. Already in a pact with the Vatican, he must now dance with the Devil… for the highest stakes of all.

reviewed by
Discovering Diamonds
About Friends of my Father : Ireland 1943: although officially neutral no country can remain totally immune from world events. Some of its finest young are fighting and dying in far-flung places. But back home 13-year-old Brendan Lavelle has his own war to fight. His father, John Lavelle, is one of the town’s two doctors, respected and revered as a holder of the Victoria Cross medal, won at Gallipoli in 1915. One late spring morning Brendan, while out visiting with him, uncovers a seemingly trivial secret about his father that sets him on a perilous quest for the truth – a search that takes him back to another war, one that could threaten his entire family’s future. Is his father part of a terrible conspiracy that involves betrayal, murder and a hunt for stolen gold? Why are his father’s former comrades-in-arms no longer what they seemed… and why are they so suddenly interested in what Brendan knows? With his infuriating but streetwise sidekick, Maura, they are all that stands between the destruction of everything Brendan holds dear… and a truth that may prove more costly than he is prepared to pay. In the rumour-soaked atmosphere of Ireland’s ‘Emergency’ – with its spies from the skies, floating German mines and the hated ‘glimmer man’ – five crucial days is compellingly evoked here in a tale of one boy who must grow up fast – or die!
reviewed by
Discovering Diamonds
About Duty and Dishonour : Conor O’Farrell was born in mid-Atlantic, on a coffin ship, his parents fleeing the Irish potato famine. In that sense he was lucky, where millions were not. His father taught him to be proud of his new American roots. When the Civil War started his father said it was his duty to volunteer; the family owed their new country. Conor was 16, swept along on the tide of history like so many others, in a nation struggling to find its identity. In his determination to survive he did things few men could boast about. But survival was paramount; nobility had to catch up.

This epic of one such life takes in the sweep of a crucial and colourful period in the American West, meeting historical characters along the way.

What he lived through made him what he was – patriot, soldier, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, outlaw, lover, movie star – but always… a fugitive.

Finds books by Shaun on :

Monday 21 May 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick - I Did It My Way

In 2005 I had five novels published by William Heinemann under my belt: my Arthurian Trilogy and two 11th Century novels. But historical fiction had taken a down-turn in popularity. I decided to step away from the #HistFic genre and write something different, something that was fun to write and fun (hopefully) to read.

When I had the compulsion to write Sea Witch, the first of my pirate/nautical adventures, I knew from the start that I was going to write it as a part-fantasy novel. That was the whole point. Like so many thousands of other movie-goers I had seen, enjoyed, and totally fallen for, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl. The original idea from Disney was that this was going to be  entertainment for children, the ultimate aim to improve the falling  numbers on Disney's Pirate ride but they reckoned without Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Orlando Bloom had been intended as the number-one draw. It was supposed to have been a simple, entertaining family film with a surreptitious message of 'Visit Disney'.  The movie delivered - but in a completely different direction!

Let’s face it the movie, was, really, somewhat silly. Unlike Master and Commander based on Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey Napoleonic War nautical series, P.O.C. was not to be taken seriously. Cursed Aztec Treasure, people who are not dead and become skeletons by the light of the moon is not realism, it is fantasy and meant to be escapism fun. Which is why I still love P.O.C. #1 even though I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen it. (I will add here that the others in the series are not very good. #2 Dead Man’s Chest was OK – but forget the others, they are mere money-making bandwagon jumping movies with the bandwagon missing three wheels....poor scripts, poor plots, poor continuity...)

As an avid reader I wanted to read a novel with the same sort of feel as P.O.C. #1: nautical adventure based around a rogue of a pirate with a touch of fantasy about it, and written for adults. Which means adult content. (Some scenes of sex, violence and swearing.) A grown-up adventure for grown-up readers about grown-up life.

All I could find were the ‘straight’ nautical fiction – O’Brian as mentioned above, C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, Julian Stockwin’s Kydd… Or Young Adult stories; Treasure IslandPirates! By Celia Rees. All good novels, but not remotely like Pirates of the Caribbean.
So, as most of you reading this already know, I wrote my own: Sea Witch. Alongside the sailing bits, the adventure bits, the romantic bits and the swashbuckling bits the fantasy was an essential element: the ethereal presence of Tethys, the spirit of the sea and Tiola the lead female protagonist who is a white witch of Craft - all with their parts to play alongside my very human pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne.

I wrote Sea Witch in three months, the story, the scenes, the ebb and flow of romance, escapades and nautical buckle-swashing flowing from me with barely a pause. Read this graphic below again... every single word applies to myself and Sea Witch. By reading the book (buying it?) you are sharing a piece of my heart, my soul... 

The disappointment came when my agent at the time (now ex-agent) hated what I submitted to her. No, more than disappointment, sheer heartbreaking devastation. I had put everything I had into writing that book. I was so excited about it when I sent it off as a typed manuscript. This one, I just knew was going to be the book. My Big Time Hit.

To receive back a wadge of pages two months later with red-ink lines scrawled all over them, accompanied by snarky comments scribbled in the margins was devastating.

I was told that it was  'unsuitable for boys'…

 er… I hadn’t written it for boys. 
Told “No one is interested in pirates,” 
er… Jack Sparrow?
Told to lose the fantasy, "It's neither one thing nor the other. You cannot produce novels that do not have a specific genre."
er.... why not?
Told to change my pirate's name: “Acorne is a silly name. It is too much like TV' s Acorn Antiques.
So what? What about other familiar names? Bond, Snow, Bennett, Potter ... There is about 13,900,000 results for 'Acorn Whatever Business' listed on Google.  For Acorne - with the 'e' there are about 59,400 results. Nowhere near the same. Anyway, that was his name. I was sticking to it.

I refused to change anything, so my (ex) agent dumped me and informed me within the same abrupt telephone call that my publisher, William Heinemann, had also dropped me. (Coincidence? Hmmm.)

I spent two weeks sobbing, then picked myself up, dusted myself down and came back fighting.

I tried a few other publishers but I got the common response of “love it but it’s not for us.” Sea Witch was not the square-peg that fitted nice and neatly into their square-holed traditional (i.e old-fashioned) expectations. I was told to lose the fantasy: “It isn’t one thing or the other is it? How would we market it?”

Sea Witch isn’t just historical fiction, it isn’t just nautical adventure, it isn’t just fantasy... it is a bit of all three bound and woven together, so apparently, according to agents and publishing houses back in 2006 it was, therefore, unmarketable. Which meant unsaleable.

I figuratively stuck my fingers up to the lot of them and went indie - self-publish. I made a bit of a mess of it – those first couple of years were a very sharp learning curve, I can tell you – hindered by the assisted publishing company I went with which turned out to be run by a charlatan. Books were not printed, royalties were not paid … when the company finally went bankrupt (the CEO walking away unscathed, his staff and authors not seeing a penny of what was owed them,) I went to the reliable, professionally run, quality company of SilverWood Books instead. I’m still with them.

The fact is, self-publishing/Indie/D.I.Y is now, in 2018, far more respected than it was in 2006 when I made that ‘Rubicon’ decision. The majority of indie books, today, are  professionally edited and equal (if not even surpass!) mainstream-standard production.

In January 2017 I founded Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, primarily, but not exclusively, for indie published novels. In fact we pay no attention to the logo on the spine or who or how the novels submitted are published because we keep a totally open mind:. a good book is a good book no matter how it is published or comes to be listed on Amazon.

And that brings me to the huge advantages for indie writers. 
Amazon and Social Media.

Most readers buy their books through Amazon because it is quick, simple, and often, cheaper. All very well, but readers need to know about the books in order to buy them… and thanks to Blogs, Facebook and Twitter, us authors can market our books as and how we like. With cross genre not causing the slightest problem.

Hey Big Publishing Companies, did you hear that? 

Marketing - and selling - cross-genre novels is not a problem! Being indie I don't have those restrictions of square pegs and round holes, or of that one-size must fit all nonsense. I don't have to write yet another publisher-demanded novel about the Tudors, or a Fifty Shades of Garbage that Marketing claims to be a good read (even if it isn't). I am aware that adults want to read adult books, that pirates are popular, that fantasy is here to stay and that having the courage (OK, maybe stupidity?) to follow your heart is rewarding. 

I am writing what I want to read, not what  the square pegs stuck in their out-dated holes dictate. So if you want to write and have been rejected and dejected, think about joining us indie writers (but make sure you do so in a professional quality standard way.)

It is scary. It is expensive. It is hard work. But honest pirate - it's worth it!


By buying one of my books you are not just buying a book, you will be sharing an adventure, you will be buying a piece of my heart, a piece of my soul and a very big, very important piece of my life! 

And what's more I am delighted and thrilled to be sharing it all with you!

If, by chance, you've already read/bought any of my books, please place a comment on Amazon
Bottles of red wine sent via Royal Mail are also acceptable....

available in Italian
and as an additional amusement
 huge apologies to Frank Sinatra, a different version of 'My Way'

And now, the end is near;
And so I face that final edit.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, for which I must take credit. 

Rejects, I've had a few;
But then again, too many here to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each chaptered course;
Each careful step along the writing pathway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

Yes, there were times, I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate rejection up and spat it out.
I chose the font, and wrote the prose...
And did it way!

I wrote, I laughed and cried.
I had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as fears subside,
I find it all so amusing.

To think I did all that;
And may I say - not in a shy way,
Oh no, oh no not me,
I wrote it... my way!

For what is a book, what has it got?
If not mainstream, then it has not
To be set aside and be forgot!
Don’t lose the words … you have a choice
Find and use your indie voice. 
And write it your way! 

Monday 14 May 2018

Tuesday Talk: The Perfect King...

Edward III
Edward III
King of England: 25 January 1327 – 21 June 1377
Coronation: 1 February 1327
House: Plantagenet
Father: Edward II of England   Mother: Isabella of France
Born: 13 November 1312 at Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Died: 21 June 1377 aged 64 at Sheen Palace, Richmond
Buried at: Westminster Abbey, London

Wife: Philippa of Hainault
ChildrenEdward, the Black Prince, Isabella, Countess of Bedford, 
Joan, Lionel Duke of Clarence, John Duke of Lancaster,
Edmund Duke of York, Mary Duchess of Brittany, Margaret Countess of Pembroke, 
Thomas Duke of Gloucester.

Edward III
Edward III is noted for his military success and for restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. Edward III transformed the Kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His long reign of fifty years was the second longest in medieval England and saw vital developments in legislation and government—in particular the evolution of the English parliament—as well as the ravages of the Black Death.

Edward III's Coronation
Edward was crowned at the age of fourteen after his father was deposed by his mother, Isabella of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer. At seventeen he led a successful coup against Mortimer, the de facto ruler of the country, and began his personal reign. After a successful campaign in Scotland he declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1337. This started what became known as the Hundred Years' War. Following some initial setbacks the war went exceptionally well for England; victories at Crécy and Poitiers led to the highly favourable Treaty of Brétigny, in which England made territorial gains, and Edward renounced his claim to the French throne. Edward's later years were marked by international failure and domestic strife, largely as a result of his inactivity and poor health.

He was a temperamental man but capable of unusual clemency. In many ways he was a conventional king whose main interest was warfare. Admired in his own time and for centuries after, Edward was denounced as an irresponsible adventurer by later Whig historians. This view has been challenged and modern historians credit him with significant achievements... so...

A Review (and a few thoughts) of  Ian Mortimer's The Perfect King
by Nicky Galliers

"He ordered his uncle to be beheaded; he usurped his father's throne; he started a war which lasted for more than a hundred years, and taxed his people more than any other previous king. Yet for centuries Edward III was celebrated as the most brilliant king England had ever had, and three hundred years after his death it was said that his kingship was perhaps the greatest that the world had ever known.

In this first full study of the man's character and life, Ian Mortimer shows how Edward personally provided the impetus for much of the drama of his fifty-year reign. Under him the feudal kingdom of England became a highly organised nation and experienced its longest period of domestic peace in the middle ages.

Nineteenth century historians saw in Edward the opportunity to decry a warmonger, and painted him as a self-seeking, rapacious, tax-gathering conqueror. Yet as this book shows, beneath the strong warrior king was a compassionate, conscientious and often merciful man - resolute yet devoted to his wife, friends and family. He emerges as a strikingly modern figure, to whom many will be able to relate - the father of both the English nation and the English people."

There are few historians like Ian Mortimer. The average history tome is dry and sterile and based on a range of facts selected to illustrate a point. They push kings and princes around like chess pieces on a board, and we are told that so-and-so did something because of some political ideal or expectation or every action is twisted around a tinted veil of bias.

Mortimer isn't like that. Mortimer gets under the skin of the people he writes about, he understands them, knows they were human with human failings, wants and desires, are shades of grey and are never wholly good or evil. So when he turned his hand to Edward III, the Perfect King of the title, he wrote a compelling narrative history that can move you to tears.

Edward III has not come to us with a glittering story. There is no Edward III society and novels about him are thin on the ground. This is the first reason Mortimer's book, therefore, ought to be required reading. He finds an Edward in the scrolls and chronicles and wardrobe accounts who is larger than life, who is so charismatic that his followers competed among themselves to serve him; a man who knew his worth, and knew when to let others lead; whose personal acts of heroism stand out in an era of great feats of arms. Who had fun and enjoyed dressing up and larking around.

He explores the stories that surround Edward and uses facts and evidence to assess their validity and examines factual accounts as well as chronicles to gain insight untainted by emotion. He quashes some of the most lurid through revealing the total lack of evidence to support them.

And that is the second reason this book should be required reading for all historians and history students, and writers of historical fiction. Evidence. No other historian writing today can examine evidence with the same objectivity as Ian Mortimer.

I was taught by my A Level history teacher how to assess evidence objectively. Mortimer is of the same mould as that A Level teacher. He looks at evidence and sees what is there, not what he thinks ought to be there. He sees what is written, not what he wants to be written. He doesn't constantly say 'he meant to say this or that' but 'these are the words he chose and this is what he wanted to say'. It is not a naive reading of the sources, but an unbiased one, an open-minded one. He challenges the status quo because the status quo is not supported by cold, hard fact.

But one thing this volume is not is cold. Edward leaps off every page, his personality uncovered, so this history text book does what no other has ever done - it can make you cry. You can feel poignant sympathy for the king who lost the love of his life in his loyal queen, Philippa, and you feel affronted that this remarkable man was so poorly treated in his old age by those who enjoyed the peace he had shed blood for.

The Perfect King is an exceptional piece of research into the life of a medieval personality and an exceptional tutorial in how to approach history as a subject, how to research and how to interpret what you find.

In short, The Perfect King is a Perfect History.

© Nicky Galliers

Nicky at Crécy
Buy the book
AMAZON UK £9.49 (kindle)
AMAZON US $13.23 (kindle) 

Monday 7 May 2018

Fiction and FantasyTuesday Talk with Helen Hollick

Stories, books, novels, fiction - the gateway to other worlds, times and places...

Back in 2006 when I made the decision to 'go indie' after my (ex) agent dropped me, one of the decisions I had to make was "do I really want this book to be part fantasy?"

The novel in question was Sea Witch. I had put my heart and soul into writing it, but my agent hated it (as it turned out, what did she know... but that tale is for my next article scheduled for the 22nd May.) I had set out to write Sea Witch as a nautical adventure with a touch of fantasy because the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was:

a) very very popular
b) great fun
c) entertaining

all of which were because of:

a) Johnny Depp
b) pirates are popular
c) fantasy is entertaining.

What stories do you remember from childhood? Fairy tales - bet' ya! Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast... Of course a princess could prick her finger and sleep for one-hundred years or wear glass slippers and ride around in a coach that had been a pumpkin... How many of us believed that our Teddy was real? We believed in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. We believed the stories because they were magical and magic is an important part of being young, of growing up and well, living life. And some magic is real: blossom appearing on the trees in spring is magical, moonlight glistening on snow is magical, the sun sparkling on a blue ocean is magical... the birth of a baby or young animal is magical... 

Who was not enthralled by the Greek Myths? By giant gods, strange monsters or by Pegasus and Unicorns? By mermaids, fairies, angels...

As we grew up so the fantasy expanded: Lord of the Rings, Anne MacAffrey's Dragons of Pern,  or the intrigue of Game of Thrones...

Fantasy is important in the realms of fiction because it is safe adventuring. Danger is met head-on, but it is in a book. It is not real - we become immersed in whatever world we have entered via those bound pages or the Kindle screen. The imagination is a powerful tool, fantasy feeds that imagination, without it the world of story fails and stories would fade away into nothingness. With it, be it tales told round a fire back in the days of the Stone Age, or the modern medium of cinema and TV, tales well-told become real. The characters become real, the adventure becomes real.

Cinema has, perhaps, overtaken novels where fantasy or science fiction is concerned. It is hard to believe that the original release of Star Wars was all those many years ago. We sat there in the cinema, the lights went down - we were wondering what this Star Wars thing was all about - the music started with that triumphal blare, the words 'In a galaxy far far away...' scrolled before us and suddenly... suddenly... that movie theatre shook! Yes my seat actually shook as something very, very, large rumbled over our heads and appeared on screen. 

That Imperial Cruiser had never, ever, been seen before and it really felt that it had, indeed, trundled in over our heads. That is the magic of fantasy. The fuelling of the imagination, the wonder of bringing what isn't real into what appears to be complete reality.

Without fantasy, without stories, without books, novels and wonderful fiction what a dreadful, dull world it would be.

What are your thoughts on fantasy? Do you love the magic and mystery of a fantasy adventure? Or do you think fantasy should stay with children's fairy stories? 

Buy the books:
* * * 
coming to this blog on 22nd May..... 

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