The story behind Unfashioned Creatures: guest post by Lesley McDowell


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Lesley McDowell‘s Unfashioned Creatures is a gothic novel featuring Isabella Baxter Booth, who formed a close friendship with Mary Shelley during their formative teen years – when Mary began work on Frankenstein. In this guest post, Lesley tells us the story of why and how she wrote it.

Where does the idea for a book come from? I wish the answer for this was straightforward, but instead it’s full of stops and starts and sideways manoeuvring. I’d originally planned to write a novel about Claire Clairmont, the step-sister of Mary Shelley, after reading about her in 1998. Claire captivated me with her spirit and adventurousness. She’d had an affair with Byron, borne his child, and worked as a governess in Russia after her only protector, Shelley, had died.

But I couldn’t write her into a novel somehow. Claire was a great diary-keeper and letter-writer which meant lots of lovely personal information, but no space for me to invent my version of her. After I’d completed a rough manuscript I wasn’t happy with, I remembered Mary Shelley’s stay in Dundee, from 1812-1814, with the Baxter family. Mary had grown very close to Isabella Baxter, who was also only about fourteen at the time. Isabella went on to marry her dead sister’s husband, who was thirty years older than her. That struck me as a dramatic, romantic and odd thing to do; subsequently her husband experienced bouts of madness.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

In 1823, after Shelley had died in Italy and Mary had come back to London, she met up with Isabella, whom she hadn’t seen for some time. This meeting greatly disturbed Mary, although she never quite explained why. All she said was that if it wasn’t for the memory of happier times, she would have nothing more to do with Isabella who, she related in a letter to her friend Leigh Hunt, was “very disturbed in her reason.”

That was almost all I needed. I’d always loved Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and the ambiguity surrounding the governess relating the tale – is she mad or does she really see ghosts? – was perfect for Isabella. Best of all, there was very little recorded in her own words – I had the space to imagine her as I wanted.

Then as I began to research the history of madness, I found the 1820s to be an extraordinary time, a time of real hope, of experimentation with new treatments for those “disturbed in their reason”. Practitioners of this new science truly believed they could ‘cure’ madness. A community at Gheel in Antwerp in Belgium also had a radical approach to treating madness.

Many things began to come together – the Scottish Enlightenment had thrown up all sorts of arguments about reason and what made humans human (the very question that leads us to a consideration of madness – if we lose our sanity, do we lose our ‘selves’?). I realised I needed a doctor’s narrative, and thought of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, with its dual structure. I tried to follow the same pattern and tell the story from two points of view – Isabella’s, and that of a young doctor’s, with whom she comes into contact.

I hadn’t written from the point of view of a young man before and wasn’t sure I could do it. I initially made my male protagonist, Alexander Balfour, a very old man but soon realised too much was told in flashback, holding up the pace of the narrative. So I put him in the same time frame as Isabella, and that was that. The sparks started to fly.

Some small liberties with the facts are always necessary with historical fiction, but staying true to the ideas of the time is important. My Isabella is an invention that I’m sure would have horrified the real Isabella, but what matters is that she’s convincing. I want readers to believe in her, and in her story.

Lesley McDowell

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Saltire Celebrates – and mourns.

St Andrew’s day in Glasgow began with a bright morning overcast by the devastating news of the crash at Clutha Vaults. And so Jim Tough kicked off ‘Saltire Celebrates’ at the Mitchell Library with a note of sadness, and culture minister Fiona Hyslop with a timely reminder that life is precious. Both expressed their sympathies for the families of all involved and paid tribute not only to the emergency services, but to the remarkable, selfless and immediate response of ordinary Glaswegians. The Clutha tragedy infused the proceedings with a potent solemnity. Yet the reports of engaged citizen action helped lift the atmosphere with hope as we were promised a celebration of common values, egalitarian spirit and cultural richness. Thus with mixed emotion we were introduced to some outstanding achievements of 2013 in a new and self-consciously non-hierarchical, informal setting at the Mitchell Library.

Ramp House

The Ramp House

Chairing the first sessions, journalist and commentator Lesley Riddoch invited the award-winning Housing Design architects Michael Hughes, Fergus Purdie and Thea and Ian McMillan to describe their work. These three distinct projects all shared qualities much espoused by Frank Lloyd Wright: their designs revolved around the needs of the users fused with an imaginative, multilevel use of space and unified by a strong sense of the total aesthetic. We saw these embodied in a well-executed upper conversion to a suburban home; a beautifully detailed artist’s residence in Perth city centre; and an ingeniously devised compact urban space transformed into a fully accessible, open-plan, light-filled family home. This latter was furnished with ramps around the periphery affording inclusive wheelchair access as well as views of the whole from a series of integrated small spaces (recalling another Frank Lloyd Wright reference in its echo of the Guggenheim NYC’s pioneering ramp and viewing platforms). As well as ramps, there was much talk of stairs and ladders on this panel, which recurred in later segments. Would it be too far-fetched to extend this as a metaphor for Scotland rising to the challenges ahead?

The important climate challenge work of South Seeds and the Energy Snapshot report, followed by insight on how civil engineers on the M80 Stepps to Haggs link mitigated sound and biodiversity issues (whilst keeping the traffic moving), rounded off what had earlier been mischievously referred to as the ‘suits and testosterone’ part of the day. The panellists proved that for our infrastructure to be planned and delivered with the excellence and reliability that we demand of it, the industry must be about much more than we often give it credit for. An audience member underlined this by pointing out that our engineers deserve greater recognition. And practical contributions to greener solutions in our communities are clearly a priority, now and in the future.

An inspirational array of students followed, with travel bursary recipients for architecture and art (more ladders!) and for creative writing and music. In a rather grey crowd, follically speaking, their youthful vision, creativity and talent – and yes, excellent hair – were warmly welcomed.

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Dolina McLennan and James Robertson with Janice Forsyth

Broadcaster Janice Forsyth took over the chairing to introduce leading literary figure James Robertson, who is not only an award-winning novelist and poet but a publisher and tireless advocate for the Scots language. His insightful observations on language and its political dimensions prompted much debate on the topic, including from Magnus Linklater, the society’s President. The ever-popular Dolina MacLennan, meanwhile, reflected on some of the highlights of her all-singing, all-dancing (and acting, broadcasting and storytelling) career on radio, television and stage – including the original ground-breaking 7:84 tour of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. For these many achievements she was named Fletcher of Saltoun for 2012. Her successor to the award, Willie McIlvanney, was unfortunately unable to join her on the platform, due to illness.

The Scotsman Steps

The Scotsman Steps

Stairs reclaimed the focus as Fiona Bradley told the fascinating story behind the newly re-dressed Scotsman Steps, a work of interactive art by Martin Creed that symbolically incorporates multicoloured stone sourced from around the world. So popular are the steps that members of the audience were heard to volunteer on the spot for cleaning duty to help keep the curse of chewing gum at bay. Moving from the capital to the Hebrides, the stonemason’s craft was also central to the creation of Land Art installation and commemorative monument An Suileachan, a haunting landmark as much as a place of reflection that serves to remind us of the Clearances and more.

The final panel of the day was on literature, a fitting subject for a society whose mission is to champion free speech and promote our cultural life. Authors Meaghan Delahunt and Jean Rafferty and prominent literary critic Stuart Kelly joined Saltire research book winner Robin Lloyd-Jones and myself in a discussion on the artist and national literature, taking as its starting point Meaghan’s moving and thought-provoking pamphlet. Writers being a pretty articulate bunch, it wasn’t long before the discussion broadened from national identity to inclusion and belonging, diaspora, giving voice to the marginalised, the evils of global capitalism and monopoly gone mad, poetry, and how our literary life is to be sustained and nurtured in such a challenging writing and publishing environment. Indeed, when Magnus Linklater was invited to launch his essay on the nature of Scottish identity, he noted that much of his thunder had been stolen. Nevertheless, he introduced his own controversial and interesting points to the national identity debate.

It’s a publisher’s job to promote authors, and I make no further excuse for interjecting here brief mention of a novel highly pertinent to this debate. In yesterday’s Herald, no less a literary luminary than Alan Warner selected Victoria Hendry’s A Capital Union in his Books of the Year round-up. Set in WWII Edinburgh, Ayrshire and Stirling, this outstanding debut centres around the lives of young Agnes Thorne and her new husband, Jeff, an SNP activist. Jeff gives up his academic work on the first Scots language dictionary because of his conscientious objection to serving on behalf of Westminster in the war against Hitler. He faces jail, and Agnes, isolated by the contempt of her new community for Jeff’s refusal to fight, must find a way forward. If ever there were a reimagining of history that sheds light on the issues of today, this “brilliantly researched” [Alan Warner], “startlingly accomplished” [Julie Davidson] examination of national identity “with explosive moments of real poetry and narrative power” [Alan Warner] is one I enjoin everyone to read. Its treatment of Scots language is an added bonus, not to mention its fresh, sharp prose leavened with dry humour.

Returning to the Saltire day, a change of pace was provided by the excellent Stanley Odd, led by smart rapper Dave Hook, who brought the house down with poetry of a more contemporary form. Hats off to them for rocking the joint before a not-so-madding crowd! (I was even more impressed to learn afterwards that they had hot-footed it from the Mitchell to the Yes Scotland social evening in Edinburgh, where they reprised their performance.) Musicians from the Royal Conservatoire rounded off the day with rousing jigs and a wistful ballad, whilst the Mitchell’s catering team served up canapés and wine. All were roundly thanked – participants, organisers and attendees – by David Ward for a day positively packed with much to celebrate.

Mindful of a Glasgow in mourning, ‘Saltire Celebrates’ succeeded in showcasing the wealth of our culture and staunch commitment to our values, in a St Andrew’s Day to remember in more ways than one. Let’s hope the call will be heard by the government for robust support to help our creative practice flourish well into a confident future.

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December 1, 2013 · 10:41 pm

Exquisite Scenes

After much anticipation, last night we celebrated the launch of J David Simons’ An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful. Held at Waterstones in the author’s home city, a crowd of 150+ joined the party, making it the largest event at the Sauchiehall Street branch for several months, according to the regional events manager.

ImageAfter a taste of sushi and sake to set the mood, and an introduction from novelist, playwright and poet Chris Dolan (the author, most recently, of Redlegs), David treated us to a brief reading before explaining what had inspired him to write Exquisite Sense. Nearly twenty years in the making, it all began with a simple short story written during David’s time in Japan. He had been struck by the beauty of a mountainside hotel and, within its grounds, the serenity of a quiet, carp-filled pond and the waterwheel that skimmed it (see the Pinterest board for photos). Happening upon the hotel during an excursion from Tokyo, David had immediately felt a profound connection. The young Edward, his protagonist, was in turn (fictionally) inspired to write his prizewinning novel-within-the-novel, and to call it The Waterwheel. David wasn’t going to reveal much more of the story, though! Only the setting, period and hints of the love story emerged.

Asked about theImage elegant book cover (exquisitely designed by Alice Laurent of AKA Alice), David related an anecdote that brought the entire work full circle. The design features two carp in a tranquil pool.  Serendipitously, it almost exactly matches the composition of a drawing sketched by an artist friend long ago, to accompany the original short story. He hadn’t recalled this drawing until he looked out the booklet not long before the launch, experiencing a moment of déjà vu when he rediscovered it.

Not all of the audience questions could be addressed because spoilers were strictly avoided, but there were some interesting answers nonetheless. Why did David first want to visit Japan, for example? A cracking plate of sushi courtesy of his sister’s expense account, and the realisation that the culture was a complete mystery to him, it transpires. That and the fact that he had been so agitated as a boy learning of the scale of the devastation wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Following the tantalising excerpt and a slew of questions, a long queue formed for David to Imagesign copies, no doubt meaning that readers are cracking open their new book this evening to kick off the weekend by immersing themselves in the story. They’re going to have to cancel any other plans they may have had. This is not a novel easily put aside.

As Chris Dolan pointed out when drawing the party to a close, a title like An Exquisite Sense of What us Beautiful inevitably has a lot to live up to. Yet this extraordinary book, he promised, will not let its readers down.

Intrigued? You can hear an excerpt of the audiobook, narrated by Nick Cheales, on our Soundcloud page.

With thanks to Chris, to all the staff at Waterstones, to Craig, Pete, Blake and Emily for organising and helping out on the night, and to everyone who came to the launch, some of whom travelled quite a distance. And thanks to Blake for these photos and Emily for putting the post together.

Available at selected shops now and on general release on Thursday, March 28. A second launch will follow soon Continue reading

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Cold Ice, Warm Hearts

With Valentine’s Day approaching, we are surrounded by stories of love and devotion to warm our hearts. A warm heart is particularly desirable for a polar explorer; Heart of the Hero, written by Kari Herbert, is an account of seven remarkable women who married these men of ice and snow.HeartoftheHero_coverS

Herbert’s book will be published on Valentine’s Day to mark the 100th anniversary of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott’s memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Poignantly, though, his wife, the eminent sculptor and fearless adventurer Kathleen, was not yet even aware of her husband’s fate. She was not to find out about his demise or the story of his final days until four days after the service; she was in Tahiti, en route to New Zealand, where she hoped to greet him on his return voyage.

Herbert has been immersed in polar history since childhood, making her first Arctic trip before she was even a year old. Herbert’s own father was the explorer Sir Wally Herbert (who became in 1969 the first man to walk [undisputed] to the North Pole), and she spent years of her childhood living with her family in an Inuit community on an island off the northwest coast of Greenland. Being so closely connected to this way of life, she was drawn to the stories of the explorers’ families. ‘It amazed me that no one had highlighted the crucial role of the wives of our polar heroes,’ she said.

Herbert noticed that the women were often the backbone of the explorers’ expeditions, commonly playing the role of ‘manager, publicist, mother figure, fundraiser, nurse, counselor, and most importantly, muse.’ Throughout her research of the polar explorers and their wives, she encountered unpublished journals and letters containing untold stories of love, drama and loneliness – personal tales that she felt a responsibility to share.

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The polar accounts describe courageous and strong women who supported their husbands in their adventures. These women are Emily Shackleton, Eva Nansen, Kathleen Scott, Jane Franklin, Eleanor Anne Franklin, Jo Peary, and Marie Herbert, her own mother. While reflecting on writing her parents’ story, Herbert called the experience ‘strange’. She saw into a part of her parents’ lives that daughters don’t normally get to see, and tried to ‘put aside the fact I was their daughter in order to be able to write a balanced account of their lives.’

Through all the trials the women suffer, the two most challenging seem to be loneliness and a struggle to support their husbands’ financial needs. When the only hope of correspondence was to send off letters with ships in the hopes the crew might chance upon their husbands, Herbert admired the women and their ability to handle the separation with stoicism. Beyond that, they were quick to raise funds for their husbands in need, despite the years they often went without seeing one another. Herbert said, ‘Driven by love, pride and a fierce sense of loyalty, they each developed a bond with their husbands that transcended time, place and expectation…Simply put, these women were the beating heart behind some of the greatest polar stories.’

Ultimately, Herbert hopes that her account will help to balance out the record in the annals of polar history. ‘I hope readers will gain a fresh insight into some of our greatest stories of adventure, and will see a very different side to some of our iconic polar heroes. I hope too that these women from now on will gain a little more credit for their contribution, and be appreciated for the tirelessly loyal, adventurous, remarkable people that they were.’

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is amongst those who have stepped forward to praise Heart of the Hero: ‘An extraordinary depth of thinking … A fascinating and hugely enjoyable book which makes a valuable contribution to polar literature.’ ‘Herbert portrays seven wives not only as loyal, loving, resilient, inspirational and practical women,’ says Iain Finlayson in The Times, 9th February, ‘but also as moral heroines and capable achievers… in their own right.’

This post has been contributed by Emily Ferro, intern, currently studying for her MLitt in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling.

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April: a month of book events

From April Fool’s day on*, it’s been a month of book events and happenings.

The London Book Fair, which took place during the middle week of the month, was much busier than it has been in the last few years, especially since Ash Cloud year when it was practically deserted. Stands were bustling and aisles were blocked: who said the book is dead?! We were co-exhibitors on the Publishing Scotland stand, a good central point.

This year’s guest of honour at the LBF was China, and we were able to join in some of the best Oriental action as a result of our fast-developing links with this longstanding literary nation. First of all, we had a joint celebration with Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing Co, Ltd. of our coproduction of Panda: Back from the Brink, which features not only gorgeous photography from Sichuan, but the expertise of the world’s leading panda scientists. Here, yours truly is looking over the fixed-layout ebook with President Ma of the Chengdu-based publishing house, and Grace Wang of Stirling University’s publishing M Litt staff, who was kindly translating for the event. Marion Sinclair of Publishing Scotland joined us. President Ma presented a beautiful certificate commemorating the occasion.

On the Wednesday, I joined the launch celebrations for the joint venture China on China, a collaboration on arts and cultural publishing between I B Tauris and Chiangjiang Publishing & Media Company, for which the opening title will be Art of the Warrior, a project we’ve been involved with developing during the last three years. We were treated to an authentic and surprisingly energetic display by two Shaolin practitioners, who proved that Tai Chi is not always quiet and contemplative! Vice-minister Wu Shulin of the media and publishing ministry wished the collaborating participants well, with each speaker telling us what form of martial arts they themselves had practised in childhood (“Chess”, declared IBT pubisher Iradj Bagherzade, not to be outdone by the Kung Fu experts, or even the [Korean] taekwondo-trained Richard Mollet, head of the Publishers’ Association!)

World Book Night followed, with our author Laura Marney joining a sofa crammed with prizewinning authors (James Robertson, Andrew Greig, Sophie Cooke and Keith Gray) at Blackwells, Edinburgh South Bridge. Each author championed a book from the WBN 2012 list, as well as offering their own most-often recommended title. An entertaining night was had by all, with some surprising choices, and the long-suffering Blackwells staff having difficulty chasing out the eager crowd.

The Publishing Scotland In-company Development Project drew to a close last week, too, with the final workshop day of the programme, attended by the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (of which we’re one :), Publishing Scotland staff, Skillset’s supertweeting Suzanne Kavanagh (Sashers to most of us!) and a Creative Scotland contingent. Speakers included Rob Nichols, digital director of Constable & Robinson; Cate Cannon, head of digital at Canongate; David Robinson, literary editor of the Scotsman; Carlos Alba; and I spoke on social media for indie publishers. We were also treated to a 3D extravaganza when Rebecca Bailey of RCAHMS handed round glasses for all and gave us a sneak preview of their forthcoming book – hence this surreal photo.

Last but not least, I was invited to the Stirling University M Litt students at the Centre for Publishing and Communications to deliver their final visiting speaker session of the year’s programme. As ever, it’s inspiring to talk to motivated, interesting students engaging with the industry and looking to its future.

So, all in all – it’s been quite a month!

*Sorry folks, but there is no Whisperbook™ – just turn your regular audiobook volume down if you want to drop off to the soothing sounds of your favourite audiobooks. But we’re glad you enjoyed it!

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Our Whisperbook™ audiobooks releasing today

Since we revealed our ground-breaking concept in digital publishing, the Whisperbook™, earlier this morning, we’ve been inundated with hits on our website. No Wonder I Take a Drink -Whisper-format, which is released today, is the world’s first audiobook specifically designed for listening at bedtime, to help lull the listener off to sleep.

We were fortunate to find May Nötjet, the UK’s foremost whisper-specialist voice-over artist, to record the unabridged version of Laura Marney’s recently reissued best-selling novel. Thousands have already listened to the preview.

Why the Whisperbook™? After extensive research with focus groups and industry experts, we determined not only that there’s a gap in the market for today’s stressed, sleep-deprived, information-overloaded readers, but that the Whisperbook™ brings added value that other digital book innovations lack. Several leading psychologists have endorsed the product, commenting that the experience of listening promotes REM sleep and general mental health, perhaps because it evokes the sound of a parent preparing to put down the book and kiss our infant selves goodnight.

The Whisperbook™ comes with all the convenience you might expect: it can be downloaded instantly; it is device agnostic, so it can be played on any smartphone, iPod, mp3 player, sound-enabled e-reader, tablet or computer; and it works offline, so no connectivity is necessary once it’s downloaded.

Producing a new audio format has entailed many tests and technical stages. We are grateful to our generous sponsors, Horlicks and Wispa, for their support during the R&D. With their help we have been able to launch our debut title at a price in line with the other formats for the book.

Author Laura Marney is enthusiastic about the experiment: “I’m thrilled to be part of this exciting new project, and also somewhat amused that I will be known to a new generation of readers via the whisper, when I’ve so far been better known for speaking up at full blast.” Publishing Scotland CEO Marion Sinclair added, “The Whisperbook concept demonstrates how Scotland punches well above its weight when it comes to innovation, creativity and business acumen. We look forward to seeing this format rolled out to our other member publishers and beyond.”

No Wonder I Take a Drink will also be released in standard audiobook format this summer.

Laura recently featured in a video discussing Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby and her relaunch of her novels.

So: listen, enjoy and zzzzzzzzzz….

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Reeling in the superlatives

David Hall’s gorgeous collection of underwater photography has continued to reel in some of the most dazzling reviews we’ve ever seen for any photography book.

February’s issue of Undercurrent, for example, concentrates on Hall’s technical achievement: “It’s hard enough to take a first-rate photo of reef life in the best of conditions. Try doing it in murky, bone-numbingly cold water while wearing a dry suit with 40-plus pounds of weights around your waist, and thick, insulating gloves making it hard to use the camera controls. That’s what David Hall had to endure while photographing in Canadian waters, but those physical disadvantages make his 160-page book, Beneath Cold Seas: ThUnderwaterWilderness of thPacific Northwest, all the more amazing.” But Hall’s writing is also praised as being as eloquent as his photography. Undercurrentis a highly respected newsletter/magazine for divers that accepts no advertising and publishes thoughtful reviews of equipment, dive destinations and books related to diving; it has sometimes been called “the Consumer Reports of diving”, and most serious divers subscribe to it.

Peter Symes, editor of X-Ray Magazine, is perhaps the strongest proponent of Hall’s work we’ve heard from to date: “Hall has consistently managed to capture patterns, textures and colors…as if they were created on an easel. David Hall is an inspirational master who clearly hasn’t yet gotten all of the recognition that he deserves,” says Symes. And he should know: he has been in the underwater photography business a long time, and freely confesses that he’s pretty hard to impress. He calls the photographer “in a class of his own” and says that the book is “a rare piece of art. Or rather, it is full of them.” He likens the photos to works by the great Impressionists.

Outdoor Photography Magazine‘s Jemima Greaves is amazed not just by the shots but by the richness and beauty of the underwater life he reveals: “Dispelling the myth that cold, murky waters equal boring waters, Hall has captured the staggering beauty and variety of marine life found in the Pacific Northwest. Although the animals themselves are truly amazing, it is Hall’s creative eye and masterful photographic technique that really sets this book apart…”

Beneath Cold Seas has also appealed to people outside the world of photography, marine conservation and diving.

Queens Quarterly‘s reviewer also focuses on the unsung brilliance of the colours and variety of the underwater life in these cold, dark waters. “When we think of vibrant sea creatures, we tend to envision coral reefs and tropical waters. But although temperate oceans are colder and darker, life within them is still bright. Consider the dazzling yellow stripes splashing the flanks of China rockfish or the neon feathered tips of the clown nudibranch.”

Blogger Bensozia agrees: “David Hall’s astonishing photographs show the vibrant colors and teeming life of a part of the world [where]… I never suspected these spectacular wonders. I have never looked through a book of nature photographs that wowed me so consistently. From brilliant anemones to illuminated squid to rococo sea slugs, Hall has documented an Aladdin’s Cave worth of visual wonders.”

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