Book review – “The Royal Secret” by Andrew Taylor

One of my happiest literary discoveries of the last couple of years has been Andrew Taylor. I have posted reviews of several of his books on here. He is pretty prolific, having written a staggering forty-one novels between 1982 and 2014. He came to real prominence in 2016, however, when he published The Ashes of London a historical murder mystery set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Since then, he has published a further four novels in the series, set in the same period with the same cast of characters – the court of King Charles II and the various acolytes. The main characters in each of the novels are James Marwood a bachelor clerk who has made a name for himself at court as a bit of a fixer, and Cat Hakesby (nee Lovett), widow of an architect (whom she married in book two, The Fire Court) and daughter of a convicted regicide. Cat is a ‘friend’ of Marwood’s, their paths having first crossed in the first book when Marwood was investigating a crime in which she had been implicated wrongly, though they are often at loggerheads – there is an interesting tension between them that is always on the point of boiling over. They infuriate one another, but at the same time always find that their affairs intersect and that they are in need of each other. The burden they both share is in having fathers who opposed the reign of Charles the First and supported Cromwell.

The Royal Secret Andrew Taylor

The Royal Secret is the fifth book in the series and was published in April last year. I have been eager to get hold of it and have the time to enjoy it ever since. And as with all the other books in the series I listened to it on audio. The same actor has been employed for all of the books so far, Leighton Pugh, and he is superb, able to deploy the most amazing range of voices. What is fascinating also is the consistency he brings to the characters across the whole series by the voice he uses and his interpretation of the text and dialogue. This is audio at its very best.

As always, the plot of The Royal Secret is complex and involved (this author’s imagination is quite incredible). And as always, elements of the problems set up in previous books are brought into play here. As with the other books, the story begins with a murder. This time the victim is a fellow clerk, known to Marwood at court. Marwood is asked to investigate, which brings him into close contact with the seedy underbelly of London society, including a sinister Dutchman, purporting to be a trader, and brother to the dead clerk’s widow. The Dutchman courts Cat and she falls a little in love with him, or at least with his attentions, but tragedy strikes when Marwood’s page, Stephen, the young black boy he rescued in The King’s Evil, is also killed in suspicious circumstances. Marwood suspects the Dutchman, who has gone to ground.

In a parallel plot, Cat, whose building designs have gained her some courtly attention, receives a commission from the King to design a poultry house for his beloved sister, who is unhappily married in France. Cat is sent to France with her design and a model of the building and is pursued by the mysterious Dutchman. The journey is not without consequence and it is not long before the two seemingly unconnected strands of the plot collide.

There is an interesting development in the relationship between Marwood at Cat, which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say much is left open for future novels!

This book is yet another romp through Restoration London. As well as providing breathtaking action, great characterisation and brilliant writing the author’s attention to detail and pursuit of authenticity ensures these books provide a pretty sold history lesson too! I have never learned so much about this particular period of my national history as I have in following up nuggets of information in these books with wider research.

I am a definite Andrew Taylor fan and I can’t wait for the next book!

Highly recommended.

Book review – “Fear of Flying” by Erica Jong

I chose this book for the penultimate month of my 2021 reading challenge, the theme of which was an erotic novel. It is a genre that has a lot of trash, for sure, and most serious readers probably don’t delve into it that much, not for their reading pleasure anyway! But it is a legitimate literary genre and some undoubtedly heavyweight books and authors would be included on any list: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, of course, probably comes to mind first, but then there are also The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Fanny Hill by John Cleland, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, and Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. Some of these I’ve read, others not.

For me ‘erotic fiction’ is more than just ‘a book with lots of sex’; from more recent times I’d say, for example that Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel (probably, since I haven’t read that either!) whereas others have fairly graphic sex in them, but it’s just part of the characters’ lives rather than being the main subject of the novel. Books I’ve reviewed here which I would put in this category include Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Beautiful World Where Are You?, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Call Me By Your Name, and Luster, to name but a few. Some of these are about sexual awakening, and there are others where sex involves a degree of abuse or exploitation. All of the above books appeared in various lists I consulted when I was considering which title to read, but I think there is nuance that is missing: many of these are good books where the sex scenes are well-written and won’t make you cringe, while in others the whole purpose of the story is an exploration of sex and sexuality, meant to in some way stimulate the reader’s own feelings on the subject – the depths and darknesses, fantasy, the timelessness of it, the human condition, the reproductive drive and animal pleasure.

So, that’s my mini-essay on what constitutes an erotic novel! The question is does Fear of Flying fall into that category? For me, no it doesn’t, though many compilers of lists of erotic fiction disagree with me (I wonder how many of them have read the books they are recommending!) What’s the book about? Well, the narrator and main character is Isadora Wing, a Jewish New Yorker, writer and daughter of a bohemian mother who had ambitions to be become an artist but ended up having children instead. This is the central tension in the novel: can a woman be an artist while also being a mother (for me this is the greater question, not the sexual freedom). Remember it was written in the early 1970s when the act of sex was still, in the minds of many, inextricably linked to reproduction rather than pleasure (at least for women), and for many more, confined to marriage. So, it was probably more erotic in its time than it feels today.

The novel opens with Isadora and her psychiatrist husband Bennett on a plane to Vienna (along with many other psychoanalysts of various types) where she will accompany him at a conference (it is no accident that the city is the birthplace of Sigmund Freud). Whilst there she meets English academic Adrian to whom she is deeply sexually attracted. Adrian has a partner and children in London but seems to have a fairly open relationship (though it becomes clear later that he is more committed to the mother of his children than Isadora originally believes). Adrian and Isadora have a passionate affair; the sex scenes are graphic, but perhaps more shocking to a 1970s reader would have been how much Isadora wants and enjoys the sex. And so the expression “the zipless fuck”, for which this book is so well-known, is coined. The problem is that Isadora also loves her husband and he has many qualities Adrian does not: he brings her calm and stability and we learn later on that Bennett came to her rescue when she was in a very difficult place, her first husband, a brilliant musician, having been committed to an asylum. Isadora leaves Bennett for a time and sets out on an adventure touring around Europe with Adrian living out a carefree life of sex and fun.

I have to admit that I found this book quite boring at times! As with many books that have a lot of sex in them, you become a bit immune to it after a while. This book did not fit my definition of exploring sex and sexuality. Rather, it struck me as a fictionalisation of the same sorts of issues raised by Nancy Friday in My Mother My Self. It seems to me to be more about feminism and about breaking free of a patriarchy which says that women are only entitled to a limited experience of sex, a view that no longer holds in developed societies. *(Largely anyway. In secular ones. With some notable exceptions.) It is also a book about the struggle of an artistic personality to reconcile her creativity with her femininity and what this means for her reproductive status. Again, an issue that I think most developed societies have moved on from (the same caveats * as above apply).

This book was more interesting and meaningful to me as a student of feminist writing than as a reader of erotic fiction although it probably does deserve its place in the erotic pantheon too. I have just started reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown, following a recommendation. This book explores sexual pleasure from a much broader perspective (brown identifies as a pan-sexual woman of colour) and although it is a work of non-fiction it will be interesting to explore how or if the debate has shifted. A topic I will return to!

So, as for Fear of Flying, would I recommend? Well, yes, if you’re interested in the topic, but not necessarily for “pleasure”!

If you have read this book, I would be interested in your views.

My 2022 reading challenge

I’ve been setting myself a reading challenge for a few years now. I love following the challenges that other bloggers have set for themselves. Sometimes this is about quantity, no bad thing, especially if you want to get back into a reading groove if perhaps life has taken over a bit and reading has dropped off the list of priorities. I can certainly empathise with this at the moment! Earlier this month I did my monthly ‘in pictures’ post. I hardly took any photos in December so the few that I did have (mostly photos of a research trip to Essex) all looked very pleasant and serene. In reality, things felt much more chaotic! Not just the usual pre-Christmas stuff, but also putting my house back together after the huge disruption of a kitchen refurbishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful now and I’m very happy, but it took several weeks to be fully finished, thanks to Covid and supply chain issues (Brexit: the gift that keeps on giving).

So, I feel like I also need to get back into my reading groove and my annual reading challenge might be just the thing. I’m going to do it slightly differently this year. Normally I pick a theme or a genre for each month, but this year, I’m going full non-fiction! Looking back on my 2021 list of books read, only two were non-fiction titles – Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the pacific Crest Trail (which made me want to go and do a long distance walk immediately!) and Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, which it might have been better to read as an aid to calm when I was in the middle of kitchen chaos! I got so much out of those two books as I almost always do from non-fiction, so I really want to make the effort to read more this year.

So, it’s a non-fiction book per month for me. I don’t think I’m going to set myself any themes, rather I’m going to try and go where the mood takes me. This month’s book seems like an apt one: Tiny Habits: Why starting small makes lasting change easy by B J Fogg. I haven’t exactly made new year’s resolutions for 2022, but I am trying to make sure I do certain things on a daily basis, such as piano practice and writing! I am hoping that this book will help me with a few tips and secrets on how to stick to my plans.

When I first started doing my reading challenges I set up a Facebook group which worked well at first. But I have become increasingly disillusioned with social media, and with that platform in particular, so I’m not going to do that this year. I’d be interested to know what platforms other bloggers find helpful in sharing their work, apart from through WordPress of course.

So, I’ll be looking out for others’ reading challenges with interest. I always get good ideas from other people’s reviews. Until next time, happy reading!

Reading challenge book review – “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

An aunt of mine, who moved with her husband to Australia in the 1970s, said that one of the things she missed from home was the British seasons. Australia moved from scorching summer to a milder greyer period between April and August (not very different to the typical British summertime!), seldom very cold or wet. I have always been fascinated by the changes in the light, the temperature, and nature more generally as the year progresses, so I cannot imagine what it must be like when the months pass with so little to distinguish them.

The snow that fell here in the north during the very cold snap at the end of November gave rise to some beautiful scenes with the most incredible light

Like many, I find the winter months challenging – it can be hard to maintain energy levels and motivation, particularly post-Christmas when one is facing into a long stretch of cold, wet and dark. But I appreciate and am grateful for this time of the year, for this marking of time. It is period which provides a uniquely reflective opportunity as our bodies want us to be less active, cultivate rest and, of course, read more! A Christmas Carol, the Dickens novella that I chose for the final month of my 2021 reading challenge, was the perfect book to sink into winter with.

I started it on Boxing Day, after the hurly-burly of Christmas preparation was finally over, after the meal was long-cooked and someone was taking over the reins in the kitchen. As a child, I always found Boxing Day such an anti-climax, of course, but now as a mother, I love it – the chance to put my feet up at last! When I sat down to read the book I felt deeply immersed in the season – the darkness, the warmth and protection of the interior domestic scenes, (the Cratchits and Scrooge’s nephew, that is, not the cold, lonely home of Scrooge). I read in the late afternoons as I sat down with a glass of something, or a hot cup of tea, as the dusk was falling and my neighbours’ lights were coming on, and I felt in the middle of a northern winter! I cannot imagine reading this book at Christmas time in Australia!

The visitations of the spirits of course, turn Scrooge from a miserable, lonely miser to a benevolent embracer of life and all the good things it has to offer. But in reading it for the first time in what must be many years I felt a deep and powerful sense of the importance not so much of the Christian religious themes but of more universal ideas around family, the importance of community, or caring for the less fortunate, and of rituals around food – the scene in the Cratchit’s household, particularly with the Christmas pudding is marvellous! This has a particular resonance for me as each year I gift a few of my neighbours a home-made Christmas pudding, so at the end of November, my kitchen resembles a Turkish bath thanks to all the steaming!

A Christmas Carol is a brilliant book – simple themes conveyed with imagination and economy. Like so many people, December was a very busy month of preparation and my reading suffered. This was the perfect reintroduction and I thoroughly enjoyed opening a Dickens again. It has made me want to go back and re-read all his other novels that I love so much. The size of my TBR pile is so great that that might be too much – next year’s reading challenge perhaps!

What is your ‘go to’ book at Christmas?

Happy new year!

Happy new year fellow bloggers and readers! Let us all hope that 2022 sees the world turning the corner on the pandemic although even as I write numbers of infections in the UK, and particularly here in northwest England where I live, are frighteningly high so it is an anxious time for the clinically vulnerable once again, and for parents hoping that children can remain at school for a whole term and for anyone waiting for hospital treatment.

My Christmas was quiet – no visiting relatives for us this year. I was lucky enough to have my three children at home, though, my son returning from university, so we simply hunkered down and spent some wonderful family time together. University and school have now returned, twelfth night has passed, the decorations have been packed away for another year and it is time to get back to some semblance of normal life.

I haven’t posted on here for a few weeks. I took some time out from all my various activities over the holiday period to give myself some time to think about how I wanted to take things forward over the coming year. The autumn was quite a stressful period with one thing and another (some planned, some not) and I am hoping that the next few months will be somewhat quieter, though both my daughters are facing into big exams this year, so there is a persistent background worry about whether or not they will go ahead, about fairness and equity and about staying healthy in the run-up to them.

I have decided that this must be the year that I take my writing to the next level, so I am going to try and do a bit less of my day job to give myself the space to do that. I had a good momentum up until the start of the pandemic and then, as so many people have found, my writing routines, my motivation, my capacity all seemed to vanish and I have found myself in a rut with it ever since.

Blogging is an integral part of my writing. At the very least it exercises all the right muscles, and reading, the main focus of this blog, is the very thing that inspires me to write, so no issues there then. I would like to tell you a bit more about my writing in the coming months, if only as a way of keeping myself accountable and on track. I am going to continue to set myself an annual reading challenge. This year, I have decided that I want to focus on non-fiction. I did not read as much non-fiction last year as I have done in previous years, so I am planning to pick a different theme each month. I haven’t yet decided what January’s theme will be, so look out for that in the next week or so.

I am a ‘completer-finisher’ so I need to tell you about the November AND December books for my 2021 reading challenge; November’s theme was erotic fiction and I chose Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and December’s challenge was to read A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic. I’ll be posting about those in the coming days too.

Another important goal for me this year is to pay attention. In this last year or two I have spent more time walking around my local area than ever before, noticing things that I hadn’t previously. It has been a joy and has taught me that sometimes the biggest learnings and the most important discoveries can be pretty close to home. This is a lesson I hope to take into 2022 as well.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the year ahead?

Whatever they are, I would like to wish you every success in realising them.

Audiobook review – “Home Stretch” by Graham Norton

I am a huge admirer of Graham Norton. There does not seem to be much that this funny, likeable man cannot turn his hand to. I was sceptical when I saw that he had written his first novel; I get a little cross and cynical when celebrities decide to write books. The sense of entitlement annoys me and I tend to think they take the place of better writers both in bookshops and on shelves at home. When I read Norton’s first book, however, Holding, I was a convert. I loved it. I have also read his memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil, but I think his fiction is better.

Home Stretch is Norton’s third novel and is equally accomplished. Set in County Cork, in the south-west of Ireland, close to where Norton grew up, it carries the charm and gentleness of that part of the world, while also exploring some challenging themes.

The novel opens in 1987 with a car crash and the deaths of three young people late at night, the day before two of them were due to be married. There are three survivors, Linda O’Connell, the sister of the dead bride-to-be, who is seriously injured, Martin Coulter, the local doctor’s son, and Connor Hayes, the 17 year-old son of local publicans. Whilst he is not considered directly at fault, Connor admits to being the driver and must therefore pay in some way. Connor is convicted of, we do not quite know what, but presumably dangerous driving, and given a two year suspended sentence. But the shame of being in some way responsible for so many deaths in the small town community is a far greater punishment that not only Connor, but his parents and sister Ellen will have to bear for much longer. It is decided that Connor should disappear for a while and he is sent to England to the employ of a distant cousin on a building site in Liverpool. The work does not suit Connor at all; living in a large scruffy house with the other lads on the building site he is bullied and beaten. A chance encounter in a pub leads Connor to abandoning his job and moving to London. It quickly becomes apparent that Connor is gay and he immerses himself in the scene in the capital.

Meanwhile, back in Cork, Connor’s sister Ellen is wooed and won by the smooth and, at this point, affable Martin Coulter. The couple eventually marry and it seems as if the family has finally been redeemed. Connor has gradually lost touch with his parents and although this is heartbreaking for them, it does, in a way, enable everyone to move on.

From here onwards, the novel flits back and forth in time, from 1987, the time of the accident, to the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s as the plot is pieced together. We learn that Connor goes to live in a New York where we find him in a long-term relationship with a partner. In Cork, Martin Coulter has taken over as the local GP and he and Ellen, now with two children, have a difficult marriage. Connor’s parents have settled lives, but have never got over ‘losing’ their son. Linda, the third survivor of the crash, is paralysed and lives a fairly empty existence being cared for by her mother and a series of paid nurses.

It is clear that there was more to the 1987 car crash than there initially seemed and the truth of the terrible night unravels as the novel progresses. Norton’s plotting is sound although it is not difficult for the reader to work out what happened, there are enough clues. Norton’s real skill though is in the characterisation and he brings acute observation to all of his characters, even the minor ones. As with Holding, I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the author, so you get even more insight into his characters through the way he reads them. There is a deep affection for this part of Ireland and the people who dwell there and although Connor is exiled from his native land from quite a young age, seemingly cast out, there is a growth and acceptance on all sides by the end which indicates Norton’s own pride in his homeland.

Thoroughly enjoyable, recommended.

Reading Challenge – December choice

And so, the final month of the year begins and it’s time for the last book in my 2021 reading challenge. I usually choose a theme for each month, but this year I picked a very specific book for December- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I almost always select something short for December because it is such a busy month, and this novella fits the bill perfectly at less than 100 pages, which should be easily achievable. I have an almost complete collection of vintage Dickens editions, bought in secondhand bookshops in the 1980s, as I did a special study of the author for my English literature degree. Strangely, A Christmas Carol is not in my library so I will have to acquire a copy. I quite fancy one of those lovely clothbound editions, even though they are quite pricey, to match all my other Dickens hardbacks.

We all know the story but how many of us have actually read this 1843 Dickens novella?

I love Dickens and A Christmas Carol might be one of the only books of his that I have not read. Honestly, I cannot remember if I have because of course most of us will know the story and all the main characters – Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim. Published in December 1843 it was an instant best-seller. It has never been out of print and has been adapted for stage and screen many times. It was Dickens’s sixth work to be published; his well-known classics Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop had already been serialised to great acclaim. My own personal Dickens favourite, Barnaby Rudge, came out just before A Christmas Carol.

November was a very busy month for me so after my Booker Prize reading marathon, I have not actually managed to read very much this last month and have only just started my reading challenge choice (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying). I don’t expect it to take me very long, however; it’s quite a page-turner! My day job has kept me very busy, my kitchen renovation drags on and my youngest child had an operation (a routine procedure) so life has been pretty hectic. I am expecting December to be quieter and I am looking forward to a gentle build-up to Christmas. With the Covid Omicron variant threatening to alter everyone’s plans in the coming weeks, I will most likely be hunkering down at home with the family and not doing too much in the way of partying. My Christmas shopping will be largely local and outdoors, no bad thing, as I await my booster jab.

So, I hope to be able to get back to regular posting in the coming weeks and will be sharing my usual thoughts on bookish Christmas gift ideas, so look out for those.

Happy reading!

Book review – “Dark Matter” by Michelle Paver

I chose this book for October in my Reading Challenge, the theme for which was a ghost story. There were quite a few that I fancied, including many classics that I have long wanted to get around to, but I liked the sound of this one and Paver is an author I have always wanted to try, having read some great reviews of her work. She mostly writes stories for young people and this novel was one of her early ventures into writing for adults, although I am loathe to make that distinction.

The book has a tantalising opening; it is a letter from one Algernon Carlisle (‘Algie’) in response to an enquiry from a Dr Murchison, who is researching ‘phobic disorders’, applying for information on an Arctic expedition he was part of. Algie’s reply is cool; he seems somewhat affronted by the suggestion that the events of the Arctic expedition were a result of a ‘phobic disorder’ and writes that, since one of his friend’s died and the other was deeply damaged by the experience, he therefore does not wish to be reminded of it.

Set in 1937, the book’s narrator is Jack Miller, an educated but lower class civil servant who is bored with his job and rather bitter about his situation in life. He meets a group of upper class Oxbridge-educated young men who are setting up a year-long expedition to the Arctic and are seeking a wireless operator. After meeting Jack they invite him to join them and it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, as well as taking Jack away from his repetitive and uninteresting existence. He has mixed feelings about the group but he gradually develops a close friendship with one of them, Gus.

When they set off on the trip in midsummer, they are full of enthusiasm, but the first alarm bells ring when the captain of the ship commissioned to take them to the abandoned mining settlement known as Gruhuken in Spitsbergen (which sits between Greenland and Norway in the Arctic Ocean), is anxious about travelling to the place. He is unspecific about his reservations but it is clear that something deeply untoward happened there at the time when the place was populated by miners.

When the three arrive at this strange and desolate place they are initially energetic and keen. They have their team of huskies and even though it is challenging coping with the 24 hour daylight they manage well enough. Jack finds ALgie trivial and annoying but his friendship with Gus deepens. After a few weeks, Gus becomes very ill and appendicitis is suspected. He must be removed to the mainland and it is agreed that Algie will accompany him. Jack will be left alone, although it is hoped for no longer than two to three weeks. It soon becomes clear that this is unrealistic and Jack finds his situation increasingly difficult. This is especially so when the daylight gives way to constant night and the disturbance to his body clock begins to have mental repercussions. He begins to see and hear things. Jack is visited by a trapper who also lives in Spitsbergen, though far too distant to be any sort of regular companion. Jack welcomes the company, but the trapper tells him the story of what happened years previously in Gruhuken, when a man was killed. It is said that his ghost stalks the area. Jack wants not to believe the story and declines the trapper’s invitation to join him at his own settlement. Jack is determined that he will get through this period, and prove his worth to Gus.

The rest of the book is about Jack’s mental decline as he loses all sense of time and the physical isolation leads him to become increasingly fearful and desperate. He becomes close to one of the huskies in particular, but this is also indicative of a kind of decline in his essential human-ness. The weather deteriorates, equipment breaks, the physical environment begins to collapse. The degeneration of the fragile physical set-up is a metaphor for the mental and emotional breakdown.

What is so clever about this book, and with all really good ghost stories is that the author lets the reader decide whether there really is a ghost or whether it is a ‘phobic disorder’. Algie’s view is clear from the opening of the book.

This was a real page-turner and I loved the Arctic setting which is brilliantly evoked. Paver apparently has a deep affection for this part of the world but it is clear from the book that she is also aware of its treachery and its power.

I really enjoyed this book. Recommended.

Facebook reading challenge – November’s choice

Three days after Hallowe’en and I still haven’t quite finished last month’s book!

The beginning of each new month seems to come around ever more quickly, and I can’t believe that I’m on the second last book of this year’s reading challenge. I’ve been reading my way through the Booker Prize shortlist these last few weeks so I am still not quite finished with October’s book, Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. It’s a quick read so I am looking forward to its conclusion in the coming days. Look out for my review next week.

This month’s theme is going to be interesting – classic erotic fiction! There are some great titles to choose from, much of it a century or two old, surprisingly enough. There are some French options, of course, but the book I have chosen is Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Its central character and narrator is poet Isadora Wing who accompanies her academic husband on a trip to Europe where she decides to act out her sexual fantasies in encounters with other men.

Published in 1973, the novel was highly controversial and caused a storm. It is also credited with setting off the second wave of feminism. The book has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and I believe we have a copy in the house on a shelf somewhere. I did not buy it so I think it must have been my husband’s – that should provide for some interesting conversations!

Fear of Flying was Erica Jong’s first novel, published when she was 29 years old

At the time I wrote Fear of Flying there was not a book that said women are romantic, women are sexual, women are intellectual and that brought all those parts together.

Erica Jong, 2011

So, I am hoping this one will be a page-turner after all the highbrow Booker shortlist reading. I’ll let you know in about four weeks time!

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