Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Ho ho ho!

At tor.com, Mari Ness gets us into the Christmas spirit — or not — by offering brief comments on a fairy tale I’m glad I’ve never encountered in the wild: Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Fir Tree.”

As you might guess from the title, “The Fir Tree” is the story of a little fir tree who lives among several other fir trees, and desperately wants to be a big, grown up tree. We’ve all been there. His short size—not to mention the fact that rabbits can jump right over him—makes him desperately unhappy, and rather than enjoying life as a little tree, he spends his time envying the bigger trees.

This doesn’t decrease in the slightest when he sees these bigger trees cut down—off, he learns, for exciting adventures as ship masts (or so a bird explains) or as decorated Christmas trees. Suddenly the Fir Tree has something a bit unusual for a fir tree: ambition. Not to travel on a ship (though that does tempt him for a moment) but to be a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. He can think of nothing else, despite the advice from sunbeams and the wind to focus on youth and fresh air.

This does not end entirely well. If you’re in a Grinch kind of mood, click through and read the whole post. If you’re REALLY in a Grinch-y mood, here’s a link where you can read the actual fairy tale.

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Argh, not finished

It’s the 21st of December and Christmas is in four days and I really, really want to get this revision of LAHN done by Christmas, but you know, I’m starting to think it isn’t going to happen. By New Years, probably, but Christmas? Maybe not.

This is so provoking. Here is the path to full revision for this particular WIP:

Started reading from the top. Read nine chapters the first day, thought, Well, this isn’t bad!

The next day, read through five or six more chapters. Going along swimmingly, making just tiny little tweaks here and there. Decide, Yay, I can probably finish this whole revision by tonight. (This was the 14th.)

Hit chapter 17 and the whole story just . . . dissolves into chaos. I’m all like, WAIT, WHAT? Apparently that’s as far as I got when I started the revision before, sometime earlier this fall.

Skim through the remaining chapters in a state of appalled fascination. Who wrote Chapter 18? Was that me? What was I thinking? Gosh, Chapter 19 is no better. Chapter 20 isn’t so bad, the momentum picks up again (finally), but this one major plot twist is stupid. Also unnecessary, that whole plot twist can be cut completely, why is it even here?

Back up and read the end of Chapter 17. Then cut two chapters completely and begin to carefully splice the end of the book back into the late-middle section, with frequent pauses to stare into space and consider just how to get the splice to work.


So, yeah, this has been a ridiculously annoying week. With a complete pause now and then to read other people’s books. Gosh, those final drafts looks so smooth. Can’t wait till this draft looks more like that.

Which it will.

But probably not before Christmas.

Let me add that yes, it is remarkable how different the writing experience can be from one book to the next, even when you have written . . . let me see . . . getting pretty close to twenty novels, counting both published and unpublished. Oh, wait, it’s 22, counting that trilogy I broke up into WINTER and THE WHITE ROAD.

Twenty-two novels and the entire last third of this one is a total mess, in a way that is unusual for me, but not, I think, completely unheard of. Though I don’t think I ever ditched 20,000 words out of the last third of a manuscript before. I do believe this is a record. Hopefully it will stay that way.

As a side note:

I’m glad I did one final copy editing pass through DOOR INTO LIGHT. Many trivial typos — well, not that many, but a good handful — and four excruciatingly embarrassing typos. The very worst was typing “kill” when I meant “kiss” — a tiny bit of a difference there. Can you imagine if that had gotten into the finished book? I sure can. Vividly.

For some reason page numbers vanish on even-numbered pages halfway through the book. That is, I think, the worst flaw remaining, and frankly I’m not sure it is all that noticeable or important given the odd page numbers are right there.

I may add a bit of teaser material. Just gotta think what. The first chapter of BLACK DOG, maybe; that’s the easiest. One of the shorter stories from BEYOND THE DREAMS? Maybe, maybe, I’ll think about it.

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As we approach Christmas

You, like me, may be tired to death of some of the more commonly played Christmas carols.

I recommend you take a break from all those carols and listen to Annie Lennox sing In The Bleak Midwinter:

  1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
    Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
    Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
    In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
  2. Our God, heav’n cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
    Heav’n and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign;
    In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
    The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
  3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
    Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
    But his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
    Worshiped the Beloved with a kiss.
  4. What can I give Him, poor as I am?
    If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
    If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
    Yet what I can I give Him—give my heart.

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Recent Reading: Starfighter Invitation by AKH

This is going to be a short review:

Read this book.

Well, maybe that’s too short. Let me try again:

a) Stuff to like:  If you happen to like virtual reality, there’s that. If you’re into characters who are believable and easy to identify with, there’s that. If you’re into complex mysteries threaded through a SF setting, there’s that.

Taia is a great protagonist. AKH said on Twitter that she wanted to do something different than the semi-standard “zero to hero” VR plot. She does. Taia is a perfectly nice young woman, and when playing the game, she’s . . . a nice young woman who’s about number 7000 to achieve her most desired goal. Not the first, not special, pretty okay at important tasks, but not the best.

She works hard, but not the hardest. She takes leadership roles, but not in a pushy way. She is loyal to her friends and has a good relationship with her family — well, maybe not her grandmother so much.

She’s suspicious of her “alien overlord supervisor,” Dio, but she doesn’t figure out the truth before the end. (Neither did I.) She’s not sure Dio’s a real person, of course, for quite a while, since the game is supposed to be purely a VR game, it just seems too advanced to be true. (It is. )

I like the secondary characters too. Especially, yes, Dio, but also most of the others. And the worldbuilding, most of it. The VR stuff is reminiscent of the Touchstone technology, but not the same.

b) Stuff not to like: This is a slow-paced story for most of its length. There is tons of worldbuilding given the VR game. Tons. I didn’t mind this, but this is not a story that hurtles out of the starting gate.

Nor is this a particularly intense book, until the end. Remember how Cassandra was really thrown off the deep end and in an intense situation right away? Not here.

c) Stuff not to worry about: Don’t play massive online games yourself? Don’t really play computer games at all? No problem! You will see some reviews that imply it helps to have some awareness of the online gaming world. Maybe so, but I have zero experience with any of that and didn’t feel like anything was hard to follow.

Also, this is a self-contained book, more or less. The big reveal happens, so we have that. We’ve got the set up for the next book. Big things are about to happen, but the fundamental mystery — that is solved.

Overall:

Read the book.

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Recent Reading: The Princess Seeks Her Fortune

Okay, so, I didn’t count the number of fairy tales contained in this slim little story, but my rough estimate is: about 17,208.

Or if not, something close to that! If you’re interested, there’s an appendix so you could in theory go through and count the total references, but I didn’t, so I don’t know. All through the frame story, characters frequently recount fairy tales in a paragraph or two, mostly as family history because this is that kind of world. When it’s not family history, then it’s someone just passing through, wrapped up in their own fairy story.

What would it be like to live in a world chock full of fairy tales? And know it? A bit scary, for one thing; certainly it makes for ornate family histories. Fills the world up with potential, as anybody can set out to seek their fortune and wind up either cursed to ferry people across a river for hundreds of years or (of course) marrying a princess and inheriting half a kingdom.

So Allisandra, unappreciated by her family, sets out in just that way. She’s already carrying an obvious fairy tale blessing, having been polite when it counted; and a much less obvious blessing as well, having been selfless when it counted; and she surely has every reason to want to head out and leave her rather awful family behind. Let me see, I think she gets involved in five or six more fairy tales before the end. 

Nice twist on the 12 Dancing Princesses: in this version, Allisandra rescues one dancing prince. Matteo was actually my favorite character: grim backstory, resourceful when it counts, and a sharp sense of justice. 

Clever writing, ornate world, not a lot of character development but more than we see in actual fairy tales. Fairy godmothers, indifferent parents, selfish sisters, good friends, any number of enchantments — it all makes for a delightful story. About the only complaint I have is that I’d like it to have been twice as long so Matteo could’ve had equal time with Allisandra.

If you’re into fairy tales at all, especially if you’d like to try your hand at catching a million references to obscure fairy tales, definitely check this one out.

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Making up languages

Link via File 770 —

Words and the Lonely Writer, part 5 – Made Up Languages.

So, just like the occasional foreign phrase or foreign construction in English to give your book foreign flavor, save your made up language for occasional sentences, or constructions that follow the structure of that language. Remember that unless the meaning of the made up language is completely explained in the following or preceding text, people will stop and be annoyed.

Oh, and use it for naming conventions, if your world is that kind. That always goes over well, as people catch on to the pattern.  Other than the use of apostrophes — they make the Baby Jesus cry — Anne McCaffrey did that wonderfully in the dragon world.

Mostly I just invent names! But I absolutely played around with inventing languages when I was a kid. (Doesn’t everybody?) And I absolutely did play around with apostrophes in exactly the most cliched manner possible, probably. 

Now, of course, I kind of play around with accent marks because you can do that with Word, especially if you teach yourself to just use keyboard shortcuts to put an umlaut over a u or a downstroke over an i or whatever. After Winter of Ice and Iron, I can type with accent marks almost as fast as I can type without, though it’s a little harder to type certain accent marks now that I don’t use my left ring finger for typing. (You may not have heard about this because I don’t think I considered it important enough to mention here, but I made a real good try at snipping the tip of that finger off with gardening shears a few months ago. I will say that having stitches removed from the tip of your finger is dramatically more ouchy than I expected, but teaching myself not to type with that finger was really very easy; it literally took just minutes to teach myself to hit the s, w, and z with the middle finger of that hand.)

Anyway, moving on!

I have, as you know, two WIP that are essentially finished. They’re in completely, totally different worlds and they have quite different naming systems. I’ll call them OWIP (Obsessive WIP) and OWIP (Original WIP — oh, wait. Okay, how about FWIP (First WIP). 

No, that looks stupid, because of course it does, because names are important and words are important. I’ll actually give you the completely pointless working titles:

Tuyo is the working title of the obsessive WIP because it’s an important word in the first chapter. Lahn is the working title of the first WIP because it’s the name of one of the two protagonists, though at this point not the opening protagonist because I gave this book a different opening chapter featuring the other protagonist during the course of revisions.

I have actually met writers who insist that they are unable to work on a project until they have a real title for it. Plainly that is not me. I have also met writers who can fill in character names with xxx or Bob or something until eventually, at the end, they actually name the characters. That’s not me either. I find both of those phenomena indescribably weird.

Names in Tuyo: most, maybe all of the names of the one language, taksu, end in -o or -a, but some feminine names end in -g. They’re mostly two or three syllables long, with a very simple consonant-vowel-consonent-vowel pattern. The names from the other language, darau, end in -n or -a or -au or -s; feminine names often end in -i. The words are often slightly more complicated and have more diphthongs. 

And why? Because of the first names I gave characters in this book. The pov protagonist is Ryo and his people are called the Ugaro. The other protagonist is Aras and his people are called the Lau. All I was trying to do was think of names I haven’t used before, that don’t sound too much like the names of characters in other books, and those names happened to come into my head. Thus we see that the first names that occur to you may set up important rules for their whole languages, because something has to and you’ve got these first names to set the pattern.

Names in Lahn:  Here the pattern was set in a completely different way: I simply based the sounds of the names on Vietnamese. Lots of -nh and -hn endings. Lots of vowels and double vowels. Not so many -ng endings because those can sound odd to the American ear, but lots of accent marks because those just look neat. The other main character is Vích, which I got from the Vietnamese name Bích, because obviously the latter is impossible for American readers unless the character is actually Vietnamese, but a “V” works fine. Oh, this site here says that for a girl named Bích, “life seems to be a long, peaceful river, and she emanates calm and gentleness.” Wow, that is absolutely not at all the case for my character Vích, so good thing I changed the letter. Lots of place names that are two words, like Duon Vu.

Other things a writer has to work out in order to deal with language in a secondary world: titles. You all helped a good deal with titles in Tuyo by talking to me about military titles (remember this post?) This was an issue here: made-up words vs normal American military titles vs some other option. I actually wound up going with Ellen’s suggestion, which involved familiar words implying function. Thanks, Ellen! I am happier with the titles now than I was with a mix of made-up words and American titles, so, though I’m not completely sure I won’t change some titles again, I greatly appreciate your suggestion.

I started reading Lahn from the top this morning to get back into that one, by the way. I got through nine chapters and found myself liking the story quite a bit, always a good sign. This part is all pretty well finished, or should be; I know I need to remind myself of various story elements I was putting in as I revised, because pretty soon I will get to the part where I’m still doing serious revision. Don’t want to let any important balls drop. For example, when I was writing the first draft, I didn’t know who the real antagonist was; I figured that out very close to the end. Now that I know who the antagonist is, I’m inserting hints about that person much earlier in the story and setting up the fundamental problem. It’ll all look smooth and effortless by the time you all see it, I trust, but I wrote this one in out-of-order chunks over a pretty long period, so it naturally has more ragged edges than Tuyo, which was written in one rapid whooosh.

In case you’re interested, my agent refers to Tuyo as “intense” and Lahn as “elegant.” I’m willing to take both of those as one-word descriptors!

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I’m as prone to say KIDS THESE DAYS as the next person, but still —

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound

I’m not sure I’m convinced. I’m not saying I couldn’t find this hypothesis plausible-ish:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age. [Bold is mine]

But I’m not sure I think that this article makes a totally persuasive case. For example, in the next paragraph, we have this:

Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19thand 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts. We should be less concerned with students’ “cognitive impatience,” however, than by what may underlie it: the potential inability of large numbers of students to read with a level of critical analysis sufficient to comprehend the complexity of thought and argument found in more demanding texts…

And the reason I’m not keen on this paragraph is: Sure, absolutely, I totally agree that large numbers of the students I see are totally unable to read  (or write) with anything resembling critical analysis. But I’m not remotely persuaded that reading on screens rather than from the printed page has anything to do with it. If we tried to list out the top 20 ways in which education in this country has changed for the worse in the past 50 years, do you think “on screen vs print” would make the list? I don’t. I can think of any number of other factors that look much more important to me.

This tidbit is interesting:

Mangen’s group asked subjects questions about a short story whose plot had universal student appeal (a lust-filled, love story); half of the students read Jenny, Mon Amouron a Kindle, the other half in paperback. Results indicated that students who read on print were superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.

But, first, since I perceive no such effect, and since I know lots of people who read ebooks and report nothing of the kind, I would like to see Mangen’s group’s methodology and raw data. And second, did that sentence about “a story whose plot had universal student appeal” make anybody else pause? Because, you know, I am pretty sure a lust-filled love story absolutely does not begin to have universal student appeal. Which may not be relevant since student disinterest, not to mention active repulsion, may have been randomly distributed between the two treatments, but it makes me wonder what other assumptions the researchers might have made, and with what effects on the patterns they thought they saw.

And not to throw stones, but the replication crisis in all science but especially social sciences makes me even less inclined to take a somewhat unexpected result and go “Oh well, didn’t see that coming and it doesn’t accord with my own experience, but it must be true.” These days my first, not second, reaction to all kinds of “research shows” claims is to say, I want to see your methodology. When any article begins by saying, “We know from research …” I immediately think of quite a list of things we thought we knew from research that are clearly not true, or at best highly questionable.

The placebo effect may not exist, for example.  And not only are very well-known things of that nature now being called into question, but also it’s becoming increasingly plain that Fad topics can generate a whoooole lot of research that is actually all based on magical thinking and misinterpretation of data.

If you read that last linked post, be sure to get down to the part where this question is posed: “How do you get so many highly-cited papers speaking so confidently about every little sub-sub-detail of a phenomenon, if the phenomenon never existed in the first place?”

And so on and so forth. That chronic fatigue study in the Lancet that turned out to be utter junk, that ridiculously awful meta-analysis of second-hand smoke the EPA is shamefully responsible for, heaven knows what else.

The article goes on.

Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. 

And I immediately think, Wait, wait, is this a new norm? Or is it the old norm, with any reading that is assigned, uninteresting, repulsive, or otherwise being resisted by the reader?

I just don’t find this kind of report all that suggestive of a change in reading habits due to screens rather than print. It looks to me like a non-change in reading stuff you’re not interested in. I want to know whether readers still skim if they’re reading something in which they’re interested, and if you tell me they do, I want to see your methodology.

I admit I’m still raising my eyebrows over that “universal student appeal” line and this is probably making me feel grouchy and critical about the whole paper, but still . . . lay out your methodology and let’s see if we can replicate your result with students, or for that matter adults, who are all allowed to read whatever they are actually interested in.

This is the only bit that seems persuasive to me:

The importance of recurrence for both young and older readers involves the ability to go back, to check and evaluate one’s understanding of a text. The question, then, is what happens to comprehension when our youth skim on a screen whose lack of spatial thereness discourages “looking back.”

I agree that this is tougher with ereaders and that I do dislike this feature — in fact, it’s the only feature of ereaders I dislike. The “search” function is just not as useful as being able to flip back and forth. 

Nevertheless, the general message of the article — that youth today is suffering an urgent crisis in critical thinking ability and empathy because of ereaders — is a mite farther than I’m willing to go. If there’s such a decline, then I have a whole lot of other candidates in line as plausible culprits before I worry about the unphysicality of ebooks.

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All dragons all the time

From Book Riot, a post by Silvana Reyes Lopez: 15 OF THE BEST DRAGON BOOK SERIES

I will say first: Pern’s missing from this list.

I grew up with Pern, I am still quite fond of Pern, I never believed in the time travel aspects of the series, but whatever. Plus Michael Whelan’s wonderful covers!

So, well, anyway, if you made a list of The Top 15 Dragon Series, not sure Pern would be on there, but if you made a list of The Top 15 Dragon Series Covers, then certainly.

Later I liked the Harper Hall trilogy best, but moving on, what are some great series featuring dragons? Let’s see what’s on this list from Book Riot first:

Ah, here’s Temeraire. Good choice. For me the series went kinda like this:

But I’m pretty sure some of you all commented that the series improved again later? I never read the last two books, and I sort of think I remember people saying I really should. I didn’t much like the Australian book. Let’s spend the entire book traveling across Australia! And back! With no progress in the larger plot! 

And the book after that, the South American one, was worse.  I did not like it AT ALL and remember practically nothing about it other than the fact I didn’t like it and the vivid fact that I just loathed the female fire-breathing dragon, what’s her name? Selfish, stupid, short-sighted creature. Maybe she improved eventually.  Or was killed. Or shuffled off to an unimportant subplot somewhere, whatever.

Fine, moving on, what’s another series on this list I’ve read at least part of? Let me see …

Sorcerer and the Crown, Zen Cho,, I have the first one on my TBR pile. Dragons? I don’t remember anyone mentioning dragons. I read the first bit and it didn’t really grab me and I went on to something else, but I know lots of people loved this one so I should try it … someday …

Heartstone series, Elle Katherine White, I have the first one on my TBR pile. Pride and Prejudice, everyone says, with dragons. Not always wowed by things in the style of P&P because, really, it’s not that easy to compete with Jane Austen.

Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman, I’ve heard a lot of thumbs-up reactions to that one.

Chronicles of Elantra, my my, there Michelle Saraga / West is again with her Elantra series. I vote for this being the most likely new-to-me series for me to actually try in 2019. Fourteen books out in this series, wow.

Various series I haven’t read, moving on …

Oh, here we go:

Lady Trent by of course Marie Brennan. I vote for this being the most likely series on this list for me to actually finish in 2019. I’ve got the more recent couple on the shelf downstairs but haven’t actually read them. I love the naturalist take on dragons that Brennan has going in this series and really, I am curious about how she wound up the series. No spoilers, please, but if you’ve read the whole thing, thumbs up or thumbs down on the resolution?

Then some more series I haven’t read . . . let me see, what besides Pern is missing? Well, how about these:

Granted, the Book Riot post didn’t include MG stories, but hey. I loved the original Dragonet Prophecy five-book series! Great MG series, one of my all-time favorites in the MG category. Looks like all five of the Jade Mountain quintilogy is out now, too. Well, this may be the most likely dragon series for me to go on with in 2019, bumping both the adult series down a notch.

Other dragon series … let me see, how about this one?

Patricia Wrede did some great work here. I do seem to be biasing my picks toward MG/YA, but still, Talking to Dragons surely belongs on any list of great-fantasy-series-with-dragons.

Oh, here’s an adult series I liked a lot:

Robin Hobb is not my very favorite epic fantasy author, but I liked this series quite a bit. The dragons themselves were not that likable, which is one thing I kinda liked about them. Definitely not bred for docility, like some. Also just a lot of characters I liked and relatively few I disliked, not always the case for Hobb. Pacing: slow, but compared to the Assassin series, super super fast. Wow, was Fool’s Assassin slow. DNF for me, not because of the pacing. I had other issues with that series.

Anyway, I did like the Dragon series a mile better than anything else of hers I’ve read. 

One more, not a series:

OKAY FINE so it technically is the first book of a series. I just sooooo do not recommend that anybody treat it that way. Dragonshadow, no. Knight of the Demon Queen, no no no. Dragonstar, sure, that one is finally not as grimly horrible, but it’s not worth it. 

Dragonsbane yes. A wonderful dragon story. The rest of the series, no.

Okay! What have I missed? Throw a great dragon story, series or not, in the comments.

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Liz Bourke wades into CJC’s Alliance/Union universe

Here at tor.com, this post: Jumping Into C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union Books

Always pretty neat to watch someone discover a series you yourself discovered a zillion years ago, especially if you’re a fan. She’s picked one of my absolute favorite novels of Cherryh’s: Cuckoo’s Egg.

Let’s see what Liz Bourke has to say about this: … oh, never mind, she showed the cover of Cuckoo’s Egg, but has not apparently read the book. Plus she is discussing Alliance Rising, which is a CJC collaboration with Jane Francher. I’ve never read it and don’t know that I’m interested.

It looks like the two Bourke actually tried are Merchanter’s Luck and — ready? — 40,000 in Gehenna. Quick show of hands: who would suggest 40,000 in Gehenna as a good intro to Cherryh’s work?

Anybody? 

Yeah, thought not. 

Places to start with CJC, if she’d asked me:

Cuckoo’s Egg

Chanur series

Cyteen

Fortress in the Eye of Time

How about you? Where would you suggest readers start with CJC? Assume they tried Downbelow Station and bounced moderately hard, as I gather Liz Bourke may have done. I have a lot of sympathy with that: not one of my favorites and also imo not one of CJC’s most approachable books, either.

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