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New in Paperback for November

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November is upon us and the paperback releases are looking good. This month, keep your eye out for this excellent crop of new books—mostly originals.

The Ballonist by MacDonald Harris with an introduction from Philip Pullman
As in the best of Jules Verne or Albert Sanchez Pinol, “The Balloonist” is a gripping and surreal yarn, chilling and comic by turn, that brilliantly reinvents the Arctic adventure.

It is July 1897, at the northernmost reach of the inhabited world. A Swedish scientist, an American journalist, and a young, French-speaking adventurer climb into a wicker gondola suspended beneath a huge, red-and-white balloon. The ropes are cut, the balloon rises, and the three begin their voyage: an attempt to become the first people to set foot on the North Pole, and return, borne on the wind. Philip Pullman says in his foreword: “Once I open any of MacDonald Harris’s novels I find it almost impossible not to turn and read on, so delightful is the sensation of a sharp intelligence at work.

Kafka in Love by Jacqueline Raoul-Duval
Kafka was an attractive, slender, and elegant man–something of a dandy, who captivated his friends and knew how to charm women. He seemed to have had four important love affairs: Felice, Julie, Milena, and Dora. All of them lived far away, in Berlin or Vienna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons that he loved them: he chose long-distance relationships so he could have the pleasure of writing to them, without the burden of having to live with them. He was engaged to all four women, and four times he avoided marriage. At the end of each love affair, he threw himself into his writing and produced some of his most famous novels: Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle.

In this charming book, author Jacqueline Raoul-Duval follows the paper trail of Kafka’s ardor. She uses his voice in her own writing, and a third of the book is pulled from Kafka’s journals. It is the perfect introduction to this giant of world literature, and captures his life and romances in a style worthy of his own.

Granta: The Best Young Brazilian Novelists edited by John Freeman
Since Granta’s inaugural list of the Best of Young British Novelists in 1983 – featuring Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes – the Best of Young issues have been some of the magazine’s most influential and best-selling. In 2010, Granta looked beyond the English-speaking world with Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.

Now, in an issue fully translated in partnership with Granta em Português, the magazine celebrates emerging talent from Brazil, many translated into English for the first time. Authors include Cristhiano Aguiar, Vanessa Barbara, Carol Bensimon, Javier Arancibia Contreras, J.P. Cuenca, Miguel del Castillo, Laura Erber, Emilio Fraia, Julian Fuks, Daniel Galera, Luisa Geisler, Vinicius Jatoba, Michel Laub, Tatiana Salem Levy, Ricardo Lisias, Chico Mattoso, Antonio Prata, Carola Saavendra, Leandro Sarmatz, and Antonio Xerxenesky.

Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin
Day after day the Russian asylum-seekers sit across from the interpreter and Peter—the Swiss officers who guard the gates to paradise—and tell of the atrocities they’ve suffered, or that they’ve invented, or heard from someone else. These stories of escape, war, and violence intermingle with the interpreter’s own reading: a his­tory of an ancient Persian war; letters sent to his son “Nebuchadnezzasaurus,” ruler of a distant, imaginary childhood empire; and the diaries of a Russian singer who lived through Russia’s wars and revolutions in the early part of the twentieth century, and eventually saw the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair is an instant classic of Russian literature. It bravely takes on the eternal questions—of truth and fiction, of time and timeless­ness, of love and war, of Death and the Word—and is a movingly luminescent expression of the pain of life and its uncountable joys.

Hush Hush: Stories by Steven Barthelme
If you’re up $16,000 at the casino and missing dinner with the woman you love, how do you find the strength to drive away? If you give up your career and your beautiful wife and find yourself drinking vodka and fixing cars for a living, is that necessarily a step down? In Hush Hush, Steven Barthelme gives us a simultaneously twisted, heartbreaking, and hilarious account of learning to quit when you’re ahead.

The collection, which includes the Pushcart Prize-winning “Claire,” exposes the surprising dignity in lying on your belly in the pouring rain, in ringing your ex-girlfriend’s doorbell at 4 A.M., in sleeping with your dead wife’s best friend. Co-author with his brother Frederick of the brilliant and devastating casino memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, Steven Barthelme seems to cast an eye at his own history and the characters he’s known. These are men and women who are down — but stirringly, not quite out. An unmissable, arresting book from one of the most seminal short story writers of the last twenty years.

The Other Side of the World by Jay Neugeboren
Charlie Eisner is a journeyman whose friend Nick convinces him to move to Singapore, where he falls in love with the vibrant and endangered world of nearby Borneo. One night, at a party in Nick’s Singapore apartment, Nick dies mysteriously, prompting Charlie to return to New England, where he discovers that Seana O’Sullivan has moved in with his father, Max, a retired professor with a beguiling and antic disposition. Seana, one of his father’s former students, is a wildly successful and provocative writer who is equally wild and provocative in life. Together, she and Charlie set out on a road trip, first to pay respects to Nick’s parents, and then on a journey where “weird things happen if you make room for them.”

From the forests of Borneo to the mean streets of Brooklyn and the haunting towns of coastal Maine, The Other Side of the World is a grand, episodic novel and yet another virtuoso performance by one of America’s most revered living writers.

The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House with an introduction from Francine Prose
The Writer’s Notebook II continues in the tradition of The Writer’s Notebook, featuring essays based on craft seminars from the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, as well as a variety of craft essays from Tin House magazine contributors and Tin House Books authors. The collection includes essays that not only examine important craft aspects such as humor, suspense, and research but that also explore creating fractured and nonrealist narratives and the role of dream in fiction. An engaging and enlightening read, The Writer’s Notebook II is both a toolkit and an inspiration for any writer.

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The follow-up to Caitlin Moran’s breakout hit, How to Be a Woman–A hilarious collection of award-winning columns, available to American readers for the first time ever.

Possibly the only drawback to the bestselling How to Be a Woman was that its author, Caitlin Moran, was limited to pretty much one subject: being a woman. Moranthology is proof that Caitlin can actually be “quite chatty” about many other things, including cultural, social, and political issues that are usually the province of learned professors or hot-shot wonks–and not of a woman who once, as an experiment, put a wasp in a jar and got it stoned. Caitlin ruminates on–and sometimes interviews–subjects as varied as caffeine, Keith Richards, Ghostbusters, Twitter, transsexuals, the welfare state, the royal wedding, Lady Gaga, and her own mortality, to name just a few. With her unique voice, Caitlin brings insight and humor to everything she writes.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand
No one is innocent, no one unexamined in Shirley Jackson award-winning author Elizabeth Hand’s new collection of stories. From the mysterious people next door to the odd guy in the next office over, Hand teases apart the dark strangenesses of everyday life to show us the impossibilities, broken dreams, and improbable dreams that surely can never come true.

The Right Way to Do Wrong by Harry Houdini with an introduction from Teller
Originally published in 1906, The Right Way to Do Wrong was a masterclass in subversion conducted by the world’s greatest illusionist. It collected Hou­dini’s findings, from interviews with criminals and police officers, on the most surefire ways to commit crime and get away with it.

This volume presents the best of those writings alongside little-known articles by Houdini on his own brand of deception: magic. Revealing the secrets of his signature tricks, including handcuff and rope escapes, and debunking the methods of his rivals, he proves 
himself to be just as clever and nimble a writer as he was a magician—and surprisingly free with trade secrets! All of which makes this unique selection of works both the ultimate anti-etiquette guide and proof that things are not always as they seem.

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Fall into Fall with Dark Fantasy

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Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.

If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.

The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.

In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.

Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.

Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber

I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.

In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:

Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.

Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.

He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.

“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.

Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.

Written by Gabrielle

October 23, 2012 at 6:52 am

The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon

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In Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first book in his Courts of the Feyre series, Londoner Niall Petersen learns of special powers previously dormant inside him. His abilities, awakened on the Underground platform during rush hour, altered the course of his life in moments.

Dragged into a generations-old world of magic and danger, Niall must embrace his Feyre lineage, learn to move in the shadows, and save the world from the Seventh Court. He succeeds by the end of the book–and finds Blackbird, a female companion for his new life, in the process.

Now, in Shevdon’s follow up, The Road to Bedlam, Niall’s daughter from his previous marriage is involved in a tragic accident at school and the wrong people have noticed. Only when Niall hears her calling for his help through a mirror does he realize she’s not dead, as the doctors had led him to believe. With Niall on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, Blackbird in her final months of pregnancy, and an unwanted houseguest at headquarters, The Road to Bedlam is just as packed with action, mystery, and suspense as its predecessor.

The contemporary landscape in which The Courts of the Feyre takes place and the fast-paced storytelling are two strong elements in the series but what strikes me most while reading is the way Shevdon makes you care about the characters. Niall’s a good-hearted guy–thoughtful and sensitive–and Blackbird is a feisty, independent woman who would much rather protect herself than rely on others You read compulsively–to find out what happens next, to know they’ll be okay.

The Road to Bedlam balances the tricky question of how much background to give: just enough for a newcomer to enjoy the current story but, at the same time, well-short of annoying those who come to it informed. Off to a strong start, The Courts of the Feyre series is an excellent example of modern, dark fantasy. Now that North America is heading into fall, this is the perfect set of books for those dark and chilly nights.

::[Links]::
Pick up The Road to Bedlam at your local bookstore
Mike Shevdon on Angry Robot
The Road to Bedlam on Angry Robot

::[Excerpt]::

From chapter one:

The pool of light was no more than twelve feet across and, for this critical moment, defined my world. Beyond its boundary circled my attackers. They would not kill me, at least not on purpose, but they would hurt me if they could.

The blade in my hand was heavy, a training blade made of dark wood, the handle worn smooth by calloused hands and burnished with sweat. I held it level, two-handed, keeping my grip light but firm, giving it the potential for movement in any direction and leaving my assailants no clue as to how I would react.

It had been a long day, both physically and mentally. I was already aching and sore from earlier sessions and I was unlikely to leave this circle without further bruises to add to my collection.

I took a slow breath, rejecting the distraction of consequences. I had to stay in the moment and not let my mind wander. I had to deny them an opening, an opportunity to step into my circle and attack.

This was my circle. It had been made for me to define the space I could defend. Every day the circle got smaller, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. I’d given up trying to predict how it would change, only acknowledging that it would not grow in size, only shrink.

A shift in the air brought me round as a dark figure danced into the light, blade arcing down at my head. I stepped forward and around, sliding my own blade diagonally upwards so that his slice glanced off my blade with a clack and swished down over my shoulder. I spun and sliced my blade where the shadow had been but it just whistled through empty air, the figure once again merging with the shadows.

“Too slow,” chuckled Tate, his deep voice rumbling from the darkness.

I stepped back into the centre only to have a figure leap in front of me launching a series of short diagonal strikes. I used my own blade to deflect each one, slowly giving ground, only to realise that her intent was not to strike me, but to drive me backwards out of the circle. Once outside the pool of light I would be at the mercy of anyone already accustomed to the shadow. I deflected the next slice and pushed the attacking sword away, using its momentum to break my attacker’s balance and letting my own point drop. I reversed my grip and punched the pommel hard into the attacker’s midriff.

There was an answering grunt as my blow sank home and the figure folded over, at the same time trying to tangle my wrist in her grip. I wrenched the sword away, lowering my stance to give me posture and drawing the blade up in a long slice. It found only shadows.

Written by Gabrielle

September 11, 2012 at 6:51 am

New in Paperback for July

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July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

Dear Sugar columns at The Rumpus
An interview with the Other People podcast
An interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition
An interview with TIME magazine

The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson

After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.

In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.

Nathan’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to The Dewey Decimal System

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.

The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).

Dublinesque
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)

Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…

In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.

Read an interview with Vila-Matas on The Paris Review Daily
The Quarterly Conversation reviews Vila-Matas’s previews novels

Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.

An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan

The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)

A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin

Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.

Listen to Keith on NPR’s Weekend Edition
Follow him on Twitter

The Terrible Mind of Chuck Wendig, author of Blackbirds

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In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.

Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.

In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.

Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”

Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.

THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?

CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.

The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.

This sounds like a good writing routine.

It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.

Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?

Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?

Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.

How was it to plot the first book in a series?

I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).

The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.

The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”

But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.

What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?

It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.

The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?

Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?

You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?

The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.

Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.

So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.

As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.

I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?

I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.

I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.

You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?

McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.

That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.

But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)

It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.

Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.

You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?

I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).

Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.

You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.

As to what I read?

I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.

In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?

Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.

The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.

A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?

Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).

You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?

I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.

But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.

It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)

I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.

What are you working on now?

Eating some waffles.

Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.

Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.

Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!

Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.

Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!

Written by Gabrielle

May 15, 2012 at 6:47 am

New in Paperback for May

with 3 comments

Whether they debuted in hardcover last year or are paperback originals now, here are some inexpensive reads for May. We have our work cut out for us.

Long Island Noir
Edited by Kaylie Jones

Original stories by: Jules Feiffer, Matthew McGevna, Nick Mamatas, Kaylie Jones, Qanta Ahmed, Charles Salzberg, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tim McLoughlin, Sarah Weinman, JZ Holden, Richie Narvaez, Sheila Kohler, Jane Ciabattari, Steven Wishnia, Kenneth Wishnia, Amani Scipio, and Tim Tomlinson.

This new addition to Akashic’s noir series reveal how Long Island has always been a playground for the rich and famous–and while it used to be that only a select few could afford it, now everyone wants a piece of the pie. The McMansions pop up like mushrooms, limiting resources and destroying an already taxed environment. It feels a little like Rome in its last days–a kind of collective amnesia and blindness to the outside world has taken over. Everyone knows this, but no one wants to do anything about it, because big money is being spent–and made. And as the rich grow richer, the poor grow poorer and more disenfranchised; and greed only breeds more greed and violence. These stories cover the range of Long Island’s extremes, from the comfortably rich, to the horribly poor–people pushed to desperate acts in order to protect what they already have, or to try to take what they don’t from those who do.

A write up of Long Island Noir in The New York Times

Nom de Plume
By Carmela Ciuraru

Exploring the fascinating stories of more than a dozen authorial impostors across several centuries and cultures, Carmela Ciuraru plumbs the creative process and the darker, often crippling aspects of fame.

Only through the protective guise of Lewis Carroll could a shy, half-deaf Victorian mathematician at Oxford feel free to let his imagination run wild. The “three weird sisters” from Yorkshire—the Brontës—produced instant bestsellers that transformed them into literary icons, yet they wrote under the cloak of male authorship. Bored by her aristocratic milieu, a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing baroness rejected the rules of propriety by having sexual liaisons with men and women alike, publishing novels and plays under the name George Sand. Highly accessible and engaging, these provocative stories reveal the complex motives of writers who harbored secret identities—sometimes playfully, sometimes with terrible anguish and tragic consequences. Part detective story, part exposé, part literary history, Nom de Plume is an absorbing psychological meditation on identity and creativity.

An interview with Carmela Ciuraru on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show
Carmela Ciuraru on the rise and fall of the pseudonym, an essay

Silver Sparrow
By Tayari Jones

With the opening line of Silver Sparrow, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” author Tayari Jones unveils a breathtaking story about a man’s deception, a family’s complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode. This is the third stunning novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” (the Atlanta Journal Constitution).

An interview with Tayari Jones on the Other People podcast
Tayari Jones’s Book Notes piece on Largehearted Boy
Alexander Chee and Tayari Jones discuss writing on the Algonquin Books blog

State of Wonder
By Ann Patchett

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

A profile of Ann Patchett at The Guardian
NPR reviews State of Wonder
An interview with Ann Patchett on KCRW’s Bookworm

Groove Interrupted
By Keith Spera

The recent history of New Orleans is fraught with tragedy and triumph. Both are reflected in the city’s vibrant, idiosyncratic music community. In Keith Spera’s intimately reported Groove Interrupted, Aaron Neville returns to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina to bury his wife. Fats Domino improbably rambles around Manhattan to promote a post-Katrina tribute CD. Alex Chilton lives anonymously in a battered cottage in the Treme neighborhood. Platinum-selling rapper Mystikal rekindles his career after six years in prison. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard struggles to translate Katrina into music. The spotlight also shines on Allen Toussaint, Pete Fountain, Gatemouth Brown, the Rebirth Brass Band, Phil Anselmo, Juvenile, Jeremy Davenport and the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. With heartache, hope, humor and resolve, each of these contemporary narratives stands on its own. Together, they convey that the funky, syncopated spirit of New Orleans music is unbreakable, in spite of Katrina’s interruption.Keith Spera writes about music for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.  In 2006, he was a member of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team.

An interview with Keith Spera on NPR

The Angry Buddhist
by Seth Greenland

Seth Greenland’s timely new novel is set in the high California desert between the trailer parks and amphetamine labs of Desert Hot Springs and the classic mid-century architecture of Palm Springs. In this sun-blasted territory, with its equally arid social culture, a fiercely contested congressional election is in progress. The wily incumbent, Randall Duke, is unburdened by ethical considerations. His opponent, Mary Swain, a sexy, well-financed newcomer, does not have a firm grip on American history or elemental economics.

The Angry Buddhist reviewed in the Los Angeles Times

Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley
By Robert Sheckley, edited and with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich

Robert Sheckley was an eccentric master of the American short story, and his tales, whether set in dystopic city­scapes, ultramodern advertising agencies, or aboard spaceships lighting out for hostile planets, are among the most startlingly original of the twentieth century. Today, as the new worlds, alternate universes, and synthetic pleasures Sheckley foretold become our reality, his vision begins to look less absurdist and more prophetic. This retrospective selection, chosen by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, brings together the best of Sheckley’s deadpan farces, proving once again that he belongs beside such mordant critics of contemporary mores as Bruce Jay Friedman, Terry Southern, and Thomas Pynchon.

From his New York Times obituary, December 10, 2005:

Like Ray Bradbury, he was interested in the scientific apparatus of science fiction – space travel, time travel, extrapolated futures – only so far as it served his purpose. While Mr. Bradbury poetically mourns the failure to live up to our dreams of the future, Mr. Sheckley mocked the self-delusions that lead to dreams in the first place.

He reveled in the freedom the genre afforded him to dramatize the fears and anxieties of everyday life. When he wrote about the war between the sexes, he conjured a future in which disappointed lovers had the legal option of using real bullets to express their anger. When he wrote about alienation as a state of mind, he sealed the reader in an endless loop of disaffection that reduced the outside world to a hallucination wrapped in an illusion.

Because he leavened his darkest visions with wit and absurdist plotting, he is considered one of science fiction’s seminal humorists, and a precursor to Douglas Adams, whose “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (1979) seems to take place in a Sheckleyan universe. But Mr. Sheckley’s work is darker than Mr. Adams’s; the smiles he evokes leave a bitter taste on the lips. A better comparison might be to Kafka, a fabulist who never understood why his friends didn’t laugh when he read his stories to them.

What new paperbacks are you looking forward to this month? Comments are open. 

Written by Gabrielle

May 1, 2012 at 6:56 am

The Jungle Books and Tarzan of the Apes: Imperialism Explored

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There’s a certain amount of bracing one does before reading books about boys in the jungles of India and Africa written in the early 1900s by white authors. It was the height of the British Empire and feelings of racial and cultural superiority ran rampant; many viewed the native inhabitants of far-flung colonies as barbarous and backward.

As I began The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1894, I expected outdated and offensive language and uncomfortable representations of the local people. Other than a cursory glance at Just So Stories I’d never read him before and my preconceived notions stem from my tendency to conflate him with Joseph Conrad, an author of dubious reputation. Reading The Jungle Books was less about coming to a supposedly enjoyable classic than embarking on a sociological experiment.

The Jungle Books, as I found out, is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, the bulk of which make up the the well-known tale of Mowgli, the Indian boy orphaned in the jungle and raised among the animals. The other stories, dispersed between, are unrelated sketches of other animal stories set in various locations.

After reading The Jungle Books all the way through, I found the ancillary stories a distraction, and of mixed quality. Some were cute while others are entirely skippable. However, going back to my reason for reading the book in the first place, I was surprised to find that, with the exception of one mention of “Mohammedans,” a derogatory term for Muslims not often used today, there was very little, if anything, that bothered me. It could be that I missed something but I believe I gave it a good, close read.

Instead, it was Tarzan of the Apes, first published in 1912, another story about a boy raised by animals in the jungle, that made me cringe. Unlike The Jungle Books, which can be found in the fiction and literature section, Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, is found in science fiction. Because of this connection with genre I expected Tarzan to be the more enlightened of the two. With few exceptions, sci-fi tends to be progressive, often questioning society’s norms and pushing the boundaries of cultural understanding through use of metaphor. For me, science fiction has always seemed forward-thinking.

Like Mowgli in The Jungle Books, Tarzan is orphaned at an early age. His father, John Clayton, an English nobleman is commissioned to investigate conditions in a British West Coast African colony. He brings with him his pregnant wife, Lady Alice, but soon there is trouble on the ship. Officers are murdered and the couple is left ashore with their belongings — marooned in Africa. John builds a small fortified cabin and Lady Alice gives birth to a boy. A year later she becomes ill and passes away in the night; shortly after, John meets his death at the hands of a king ape. The baby, thereafter known as Tarzan, is adopted by the king ape’s mate and treated as her child. He grows up with no memory of his birth parents.

The story continues, following Tarzan through his adventures in the jungle — biologically a man but part ape, strong and agile, by nurture.

The problematic part of the story comes when Tarzan spies other humans and stumbles into a nearby tribal village a number of miles away. They are native Africans and portrayed as the typical savages you see in old movies and cartoons: naked children and adults in dried grass skirts with brass and copper jewelry and large nose rings. They are superstitious and practice torture and cannibalism. The scenes were difficult to digest and I found it hard not to wince.

As if that weren’t enough, the only other representation of black people is Esmeralda, the nursemaid of Jane Porter, an American woman who arrives when Tarzan is a man. She is part of an exploratory group who also find themselves stranded on the island. Esmeralda is the only character in the group who speaks in dialect — a near-incomprehensible Southern pigeon-English — while everyone else speaks proper English. Gore Vidal, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition says this:

Aside from the natives who are underdeveloped flat characters, Esmeralda, an African-American, is the only other black character that appears in the novel. Weighing in at 280 pounds, she is nonetheless a trembling ‘frightened child’ (page 131) rolling her eyes from side to side before fainting in the face of the ‘terrifical’ (page 177) circumstances and ‘carnivable’ (page 242) animals roaming the ‘jumble’ (page 243). Her character is a convention, her malapropisms a joke. She functions as nothing more than a stereotype of black superstitious fear for purposes of comic relief. . . . Blacks are treated mostly badly in this novel as they were during the period in which it was written.

Unfortunately, for the liberal-minded, the story as a whole is interesting and highly readable, more so than Kipling’s comparable novel. While The Jungle Books suffers from its disjointed nature, the main story of Mowgli continually disrupted, Tarzan of the Apes is a novel in the proper sense — coherent and linear.

But this begs the question, a question many avid, careful, and contextual readers often ask themselves: “how much can one with twenty-first-century sensibilities bare to overlook?” For guidance we can, once again, look to Gore Vidal:

Reading ourselves into Tarzan’s adventure is not, however, without problems. From a twenty-first-century perspective, the book doesn’t always feel like an escape, because it can so easily be arraigned as an unfortunate manifestation of the period’s assumptions about race, class, and gender. If one were in a prosecutorial mood, it might be tempting to cast off Tarzan of the Apes and simply catalogue it as politically incorrect for its social and cultural values, but to reject the book on such grounds would provide, in effect, a rationale for editing out many of the writers contemporary to Burroughs, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. . . . A more productive approach is to recognize that such attitudes were pervasive in the culture contemporary to Burroughs, a strategy that doesn’t excuse or mitigate them but that attempts to create a better understanding of the novel.

The amount of forgiveness given to books and authors varies based on the offender and the offended. As someone who loves philosophy but with a strong aversion when it comes to anti-Semitism, I still haven’t read Heidegger. So, while Tarzan of the Apes, racism aside, is a great book, consider yourself warned. The Jungle Books, on the other hand, skip the stories in between and you’ve got yourself a great story.

::[Links]::
Buy The Jungle Books at IndieBound or find it at your local indie
Buy Tarzan of the Apes at IndieBound or find it at your local indie

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2012 at 7:08 am

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