Friday, February 26, 2010

Children’s Books: Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Readers 12 and up who have a taste for history and adventure will enjoy veteran children’s author Gary Paulsen’s Woods Runner (Wendy Lamb Books). Woods Runner is a boy’s eye view of the Revolutionary War.

Thirteen-year-old Samuel returns home from hunting to discover war has come to his valley: his neighbors have been killed and his parents are missing. Samuel takes to the woods to track the soldiers who have taken his family. It’s a journey that at times seems headed for sure disaster.

Paulsen is the three time Newbery award-winning author of 175 novels. “I had a wonderful time writing this book,” Paulsen wrote about the creation of Woods Runner. "So much so that, at times, I'd look up from my computer and be startled to find myself in my office. I was so much a part of the woods in my head that I could smell the pine and feel the breeze on my face and it would come as a jolt to leave Samuel's world and find myself back in my own.”

That clarity of vision comes through on every page of Woods Runner. It is easy to lose yourself in the perfectly realized past that Paulsen has here created for us.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

New This Month: The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology edited by Christopher Golden

Despite current evidence to the contrary, our love affair with zombies goes way back. Even though, as Christopher Golden (The Myth Hunters, The Boys Are Back in Town) points out in the foreword to The New Dead (St. Martin's Press), zombies have never been exactly hot. The erotic nature of vampires? That can be pretty sexy, says Golden. “But zombies? Not so much. Eating brains, my friends, is not sexy.”

Though zombie popularity has ebbed and flowed, Golden, who also edits the anthology, points out that the zombie zenith is probably now:
We live in odd times. Strange days, indeed. Times of torture and deceit and celebrity and constant exposure to the worst the world has to offer, thanks to a media that never tires of feeding our hunger for the horrible.
The anthology of zombie short stories Golden edits here is very good, the list of contributors reading like a dream team for this project: John Connolly, David Liss, Kelley Armstrong, Max Brooks, Aimee Bender, Joe R. Lansdale and Joe Hill, to name just a few.

While zombies are enjoying some popularity at present, The New Undead is good enough to stand out even in times of zombie famine. This is a strong collection, representing a lot of terrific writing. You may never look at the undead in the same way again.

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Rushdie to Write About Fatwa

More than 20 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered him killed, knighted author Salman Rushdie has said he’s finally going to talk about the experience in a book. From The Guardian:
Salman Rushdie is planning to write a book about the decade he spent in hiding after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him.

"It's my story, and at some point, it does need to be told. That point is getting closer, I think," he told reporters at Emory University in Atlanta, where an exhibition of his personal correspondence, notebooks, photographs, drawings and manuscripts is set to open on Friday. "When [the archive material] was in cardboard boxes and dead computers, it would have been very, very difficult, but now it's all organised," he said.

Last year marked 20 years since the Iranian leader called for Rushdie's execution, saying that his novel The Satanic Verses insulted Islam, Mohammed and the Qur'an. The edict, which followed street protests and book burnings across the Muslim world, forced Rushdie to go into hiding under police protection for almost 10 years.
Back in 2002, in an exclusive interview with January Magazine, Rushdie told us that the book he was promoting at that time -- the collection of essays, Step Across This Line, was, in part, his attempt to stop people from asking about his years in hiding and living under the fatwa.

Rushdie said that “one of the reasons for trying to put into this book that material which deals with those years is that I thought it would sort of draw a line under it. Because, really, the answers to most of the stuff that people have asked me about those years are here, you know? So, in a way, people don’t have to ask me anymore. They just have to read the book.”

At that time, he said he thought it was “about time to declare the subject closed.”

Eight years on, looks like it’s open again.


Comics Make Headlines, Draw Top Dollar

This week Wired offers their reader-selected top comics list. It’s a great round-up and includes the cover of each selection:
When we posted a gallery of comics cover art drawn from Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read, some readers got pretty riled up about excluded titles.

It was just supposed to be a sampling, people: We obviously couldn’t include all 1,000 of the titles in Isabella’s cool book. Nevertheless, readers’ comics picks proved pretty fascinating.
Meanwhile, the “holy grail of comic books” made big news last week when a copy of Action Comics #1, the comic that introduced superman to the world, brought an unexpected million dollars. Fifteen years ago, the same copy of the same copy fetched $150,000. That story is here. The Wired round-up is here.

Nintendo Aims at Burgeoning eBook Market

In some ways, you might say that the Nintendo DSi XL console is the exact opposite of Amazon’s Kindle eBook reading device. While the Kindle was designed, produced and is sold to be used for reading electronic books, the DSi XL really, really was not. Even so, a growing market mandates a second look and, with eBooks being the hot 2010 item, Nintendo is poising itself to try to cash in. From The Tech Herald:
The DSi XL was officially unveiled before the U.S. market this week and, while the content hosted by its more generous twin screens will remain firmly centred on videogames, the handheld will also serve as a perfect pseudo book reader thanks to the introduction of software such as ‘100 Classic Book Collection’.

The 100 Classic Book Collection cartridge will provide DSi XL owners with a wealth of literary content to enjoy on-the-go from authors such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Tiger’s Wife

Given all the ridiculous hoopla of the last few months pertaining to star golfer Tiger Woods’ marital infidelities, his subsequent disappearance from the spotlight, and then last week’s public apology to his Swedish model wife, Elin Nordegren, I couldn’t help stopping when I came across the cover of this 1951 Gold Medal novel by Wade Miller (aka Robert Allison Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller).

The fabulous jacket illustration of a man chasing a swimming woman was apparently the early work of Clark Hulings, done more than five decades before the U.S. media decided that Woods’ own pursuit of lovely female flesh was fair game for coverage. And author Miller’s 179-page novel really has nothing to do with Woods’ sexual antics. Its plot synopsis reads:
A novel of a soul-devouring woman. Ernest Hemingway, in his famous story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” has one of his characters say: “American women are the hardest in the world, the hardest, the cruelest, the most predatory and the most attractive, and their men have softened or gone to pieces nervously as they have hardened.” The Tiger’s Wife is the story of such a man and such a woman, played out to the tempestuous end. It is Wade Miller at his superlative best.
Still, one can hardly look at this paperback front (which was changed, unfortunately, by the third printing) and not be immediately reminded of the golf pro’s woes.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Los Angeles Times Book Prize Shortlist Announced

New awards and a deeper shortlist than ever before will mark the 30th year of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

The awards will be announced in a ceremony at the Times’ Chandler Auditorium on April 23rd. The event provides the opening act for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, an event that bills itself as the “nation’s premier public literary festival,” in its 15th year in 2010.

From a release:
The Book Prizes recognize 50 distinguished works in ten categories and the list of finalists in biography, current interest, fiction, first fiction (the Art Seidenbaum Award), graphic novel, history, mystery/thriller, poetry, science and technology, and young adult literature can be found at The addition of the graphic novel category makes The Times the first major book prize in the United States to honor an art form that has indelibly expanded the literary landscape, both aesthetically and commercially.
The complete shortlist can be found here.


Fiction: Sweetness from Ashes by Marlyn Horsdal

It surprised me to learn that Sweetness from Ashes (Brindle & Glass) was Marlyn Horsdal’s debut novel. Those deeply entrenched in Canadian writing -- especially from the Western part of the country -- know her name well. From 1984 until 2002, she was co-publisher of the small but esteemed Horsdal & Schubart Publishing imprint. She has edited many very good Canadian authors and I’ve always known her own voice held clarity and sense, though it turns out I must have known this through her non-fiction and essay work.

It was, however, unsurprising to discover that Sweetness from Ashes is a confident and accomplished debut. An exploration of family feuds and secrets, Horsdal leads her readers across Canada and to parts of Africa on a journey of familial discovery. As those of us who read a great deal of CanLit know, such journeys often end in shame and heartbreak. Refreshingly, though, Horsdal’s vision is a more mature one. She leads us across her vistas with a sort of vibrant abandon. I loved Sweetness from Ashes. It’s a book for which I feel I’ve waited a long time.

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Non-Fiction: The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr by Ken Gormley

Sometimes while reading author and professor Ken Gormley’s look at the Clinton/Starr scandals of the 1990s, I just wanted to take a shower. The Death of American Virtue (Crown) promises to be the “final word on the Clinton/Starr struggle” and while one might hope that could be true, I doubt it.

While The Death of American Virtue promises all sorts of new material, one just gets the feeling of more of the same. And, sure: many of the nuances might be new but, in the big picture, while you read you just get the feeling that you’ve been down this road before.

This is the part of this piece where I should clue you in to what “Clinton vs. Starr” was, just in case you missed it but, to be honest, I just don’t have the heart. So many miles have been covered since then, so many bridges built and burnt. How is any of this even relevant anymore? Suffice to say that, if you have to ask about it, you are unlikely to be terribly interested in this rather long-winded book. And if you do find yourself riveted or incensed once more, think again. So many miles, so much distance, a whole different page in our brand new world.

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Shutter Island Movie Scores Big

Dennis Lehane fans who were apprehensive about the film adaptation of the writer’s 2003 book can once again draw breath: the movie opened Friday to critical applause and box office records. By all accounts, Shutter Island will be an even bigger hit than the wonderful film based on Lehane’s Mystic River. From the Los Angeles Times:
Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and a set of gothic thrills proved to be a huge draw at the box office this weekend, as Shutter Island, Paramount’s psychological thriller based on Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel, earned $40.2 million domestically, according to the studio.

The number is the best-ever opening for director Scorsese and star DiCaprio, the latter of whom had reached the $30-million mark only once (with
Catch Me If You Can, more than seven years ago). Many box-office experts had predicted an opening in the low-mid $30s, with any gross over $35 million considered a notable success.
January Magazine’s 2003 review of Shutter Island is here. We’ve run two exclusive interviews with Lehane: in 1999 and 2001.


In the UK Today: Lapdances = Yes, Libraries = No

We paraphrase, but according to The Daily Mail, the United Kingdom is going to hell in a hand-basket. Recent valuations have shown that while lapdancing clubs, drive-through restaurants and betting shops are up (1150, 53 and 39 per cent, respectively since 1997) the number of public libraries, police stations and post offices have been greatly reduced in the same time period.
The changing face of Britain under Labour has been laid bare in a modern Domesday Book.

It shows how traditional pubs, post offices and libraries have gone by the wayside.

In their place bookmakers, nightclubs and supermarket chains have flourished.
The piece does a lot of political finger-pointing without offering much in the way of solutions. But any time we see a trend that indicates libraries are threatened, we need to take note, take stock and think about what needs to be done differently.

The danger, of course, is that we wake up one day and wonder what happened. Libraries are currently under threat in many parts of the world, quite often for no reason beyond ignorance combined with short-term cost-cutting. The simplest way to help is clear: make sure you use your own local library and let the decision makers in your community know that you do. Libraries are an irreplaceable community resource: we need to both cherish and guard them, no matter where we live.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Children’s Books: Looking Closely Around the Pond by Frank Serafini

Photo-illustrated children's books can be -- well, I’ll just say it -- a little lame. There is often the feeling that whatever thin story exists has been created around some existing pretty images. And it’s not that Looking Closely Around the Pond (Kids Can Press) doesn’t do that. Rather, in a way, it goes farther than that, using close-up images to look beyond the everyday. And so we see specific things and parts of things, and are asked, “What do you see?” In all cases, there are numerous possibilities, but only one right answer. This you see on the very next page where you see the creature intact, and are told something about it.

Looking Closely Around the Pond is the fifth book in the “Looking Closely” series from Frank Serafina, associate professor of children’s literature and literacy education at Arizona State University. The others in the series look at The Shore, The Garden, The Desert and The Forest.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Self-Publishing: the Right Way and the Wrong Way

With certain segments of the book industry in a tailspin, it’s unsurprising that more people are deciding to publish their own books than ever before. We’ve always felt that there was a right and a wrong way to proceed on the self-publishing course, but Writer’s Digest managing editor Zachary Petit -- who has had reason to think carefully on the topic -- does a great job of pointing out the joys and pitfalls possible when starting down the self-publishing path in a recent article that looks at the topic through the lens of someone whose journey has been successful:
No matter how you feel about self-publishing, it’s undeniable that there’s a bad way to do it -- think sloppy covers, poor binding quality and wild spelling. And a good way -- like Daryl Pinksen’s Marlowe’s Ghost, the grand-prize winner of WD’s Self-Published Book Awards this year. After hearing that agents liked his project but didn’t believe he had the platform to make it salable, Pinksen then ruled out university presses (the book was too unorthodox) and small presses (his audience was spread too far) and decided to go the independent route. I interviewed Pinksen for the March/April issue of WD to see how he went about it. Here are a few of his thoughts on what makes for a solid self-published text.
The full piece is lengthy, timely and here.

A few years ago, January Magazine took a look at several books relating to self-publishing and that piece is here.

Book Company Worker Fired for Too Much Farting

I will be the first to admit that there are many more important stories floating around today. But, let’s face it: some of them are too important. Some of them important enough, you just want to laugh... so we chose to report this one, instead:
A warehouse worker’s job has gone with the wind -- after he was sacked for excessive farting.

Daniel Cambridge, 27, was dismissed from Waterstones’ warehouse after 35 complaints to management about him breaking wind.
If you want all those more important stories relating to the book industry, they’re everywhere but here: we don’t comment on the industry at January Magazine: even though everyone else seems to be doing that these days. We talk about books. (And like we said last week: shut-up about all that sky falling stuff already. We just want to read.)

Meawnhile, The Daily Mirror has the full fired-for-farting story here.

New This Week: Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox

Just in time for Chinese New Year and with the perfect cover to help celebrate the Year of the Tiger, the second book in Daniel Fox’s series will please the many fans who were sharply enthusiastic about book one.

I know that after reading the first installment in this series, 2009’s Dragon in Chains, I was very much looking forward to Jade Man’s Skin (Del Rey). While I wasn’t disappointed by the second book in the series, I wasn’t swept away. And I wanted to be swept away in this dragon-fueled, China-based feudal fantasy.

What was a civil division has escalated into civil war, the dragon that patrols the sky is the only thing keeping things under control, but even her freedom might be threatened. Once again, Fox’s prose is lyrical, his touch light. Don’t, however, expect a hard and fast conclusion this time out. There are lots of loose ends: book three is due about this time next year.

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Atwood on Optimism ... and Catastrophe

A recent CNN interview shows Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood looking at life from both sides now. “When Margaret Atwood looks into the future,” begins the piece, “she sees catastrophe.” Which is really a smashing first line, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what she actually says in the piece:
“Anybody who writes a book is an optimist,” the much-honored writer says, with a dry impishness, in a phone interview. “First of all, they think they’re going to finish it. Second, they think somebody’s going to publish it. Third, they think somebody’s going to read it. Fourth, they think somebody’s going to like it. How optimistic is that?”
Throughout the article, Atwood mostly discusses her most recent novel, 2009’s spectacular Year of the Flood but, as is usual for this author, she spends some time discussing writing and writers and sharing tidbits of process:
“I have a need for a word, then I have to find the word,” she says. And it’s not always easy: “What you have to do if you’re putting a product or a corporation into a book, is you have to search and find out if there is one or not already. And if there is one already, you have to change yours so it’s not the same.” In Oryx and Crake, she says, she had created an assisted-suicide channel called NightyNight. Unfortunately, in real life, that name belonged to a children’s sleepwear company.

“You don’t want a situation in which you name an assisted-suicide television program after a children’s sleepwear company,” she says.
The CNN piece is fairly long, filled with great quotes, and it’s here. January Magazine’s 2000 interview with Atwood is here.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Today: Gemma: A Novel by Meg Tilly

If you think you know anything at all about Golden Globe-winning actress (for Agnes of God) Meg Tilly, you are probably wrong. For another, her talent is deeper and more enduring than even her staunchest fans probably know. Likely, as well, her pain. I’ll tell you why I suspect these things in a single word: Gemma (St. Martin's Press).

Gemma is a brilliant and horrible portrayal of sexual abuse from a child’s perspective. Based on material that came with the book as well as things Tilly has written before -- mainly in her highly-acclaimed debut work Singing Songs -- elements of Gemma are autobiographical. A note on the Web site for the book says, “VERY IMPORTANT: This book is not appropriate for anyone under the age of 15.” I am not under the age of 15, but I’m not entirely certain the book was appropriate even for me.

The title character has been enduring rape at the hands of her stepfather since she was eight. At 12, he sells her to Hazen Wood for $100. Hazen tosses her in the trunk of his car and sets off on a cross-country trip seemingly designed to bring Gemma to horror, yet the child is determined to survive.

Gemma is not for everyone. It includes graphic scenes of sexual and emotional violence and it is at times quite harrowing. To be honest, there were passages early on in the book when I was not sure I had the strength to keep reading. Thankfully, the bad guy gets caught and more than half of the book -- the second half -- deals with the child’s rescue and recovery. There are moments of genuine warmth and light in Gemma, though some readers might not find enough of them to overcome all of the true to life horrors the child must endure. In their review, Publishers Weekly suggested that Gemma might be a valuable book for those recovering from abuse. For the rest of us, the raw power of Tilly’s well told story might be a little too much to endure.


New in Paperback: Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin

A bestseller in hardcover in 2009, Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human (Mariner) examines our relationship with the creatures in our lives. Not just what they do for us (that’s been done quite a lot) but how we can give our animals the best possible life. Along the way we learn a great deal about them... and us.

Grandin’s deep knowledge of her subject and direct prose combine to make compelling reading. You leave Animals Make Us Human with a better knowledge of the animals in your life than you had going in, with lots of terrific anecdotes along the way.

Grandin is also the author of the autism memoir Thinking in Pictures and the bestseller Animals in Translation. With her trademark elegant simplicity, Grandin takes a species-by-species approach to companion animals. Dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, chickens and other poultry, wildlife and zoos: each get their own chapters and their own look at what each species requires from the humans in their lives when they are in captivity. Not food and water needs but rather, as the author puts it, to have a good mental life. The first line in Animals Make Us Human states it quite perfectly: “What does an animal need to have a good life?” Answering that question with Grandin is an adventure in learning. She knows so much and shares it all so well.

“Everyone who is responsible for animals,” Grandin writes, “farmers, ranchers, zookeepers, and pet owners -- needs a set of simple, reliable, guidelines for creating good mental welfare that can be applied to any animal in any situation...”

Here they are.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Passages: Lucille Clifton, Dick Francis

Two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, winner of the National Book Award (for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000) and former poet laureate of Maryland Lucille Clifton passed away on February 13 at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. She was 73 years old.

According to one news item, Clifton was born “Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, N.Y., 9 miles east of Buffalo on June 27, 1936. Her father was a steelworker, and she was raised and educated in the Buffalo area before receiving a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C.”

From The Baltimore Sun:
With a mix of profundity, earthiness and humor -- amply evident in her 11 books of poetry -- Ms. Clifton often defied conventional notions of poetic expression, but in many ways her themes were traditional, Wallace R. Peppers wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

“She writes of her family because she is greatly interested in making sense of their lives and relationships; she writes of adversity and success in the ghetto community; and she writes of her role as a poet,” according to Mr. Peppers.
Clifton was the author of 11 collections of poetry and 20 books for children. As well, her poems have appeared in over 100 anthologies.

Also this past weekend, British jockey-turned-novelist Dick Francis passed away at his home in the Cayman Islands. From the author’s Web site:
Dick Francis was one of the most successful post-war National Hunt jockeys. The winner of over 350 races, he was champion jockey in 1953/1954 and rode for HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. On his retirement from the sport he published his autobiography, The Sport of Queens, before going on to write forty-one bestselling novels, a volume of short stories (Field of 13), and the biography of Lester Piggott. He is rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest thriller writers in the world.
The Rap Sheet has more about Francis here.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Cookbooks: Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion by Elinor Klivans

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, let them eat cake.

And though cookbooks that focus on making things that feature chocolate are not so very rare, as the title indicates Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion (Chronicle Books) covers a very specific -- but delicious -- area of chocolate fancy: cakes.

As you will expect, with 50 cakes featured, and all of them tied by that single ingredient -- chocolate -- the cakes author Klivans includes in the book run the gamut of cakery. From a Chocolate-Apricot Pudding Cake to Chinese Five-Spice Chocolate Chiffon Cake to a s’mores cake and even a chocolate croquembouche. There is a cake here for all -- and every -- occasion.

Klivans has written for Fine Cooking and The Washington Post, among others. She is also the author of several books, including The Essential Chocolate Chip Cookie Book, Big Fat Cookies and several more.

Chocolate Cakes: 50 Great Cakes for Every Occasion is a splendid book. Many of the recipes are easy, but even the ones that are somewhat complicated -- the New Brooklyn Chocolate Blackout Cake, for instance -- feature concise instructions written in plain language. And the photos and food-styling are stunning. All together, it's a great package. True chocoholics won’t want to miss this one.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Fiction: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I’ll say it here and now: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian left me cold. I said as much in these very pages back in 2005. I mention this because I had little reason to want to read Kostova’s new novel, The Swan Thieves (Little, Brown & Company), except one: I remembered what I did like about The Historian: Kostova’s writing. The woman knows how to make beautiful sentences.

Still, I was afraid The Swan Thieves would turn out to be a massive disappointment, just as, for example, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones was. That, too, I reviewed in these pages -- and not kindly.

When I got my hands on The Swan Thieves, then, I felt the urge to dive in, but I held back. I read on tiptoe. And then it overcame me. I am happy to report that this novel is far superior to The Historian in its scope, its character development, its sheer way with words and images. Kostova’s writing here sings. It’s as if she decided that each scene had to be describable in one adjective -- awkward, lovely, frightening, startling, heart-breaking... something -- then resolved not to use that word in any way, to help it along. Stunning.

The Swan Thieves is about painting and artists, their obsession with their subjects and the way they capture them on canvas. It’s about light and color and image and the lasting effect they can have, long after the artist is dead.

This luscious, tantalizing book reveals the mind of one painter, a man who -- for reasons of his own -- attacks a painting in Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Why he does it is the driving force of The Swan Thieves -- but it’s the characters that bring the novel to life. There’s the artist, Robert Oliver, who has been placed in an institution. Unwilling (or unable?) to talk, to interact in even the most basic way, he is assigned a psychiatrist, Andrew Marlow. Marlow is an artist, too -- of the mind. He knows how to get inside a psyche the way a painter knows how to get inside the images he envisions on a canvas. When Oliver won’t open up even to him, Marlow is forced to dig; he must paint his own picture of Oliver using his ex-wife Kate and his lover, Mary.

As in Kate Christensen’s wonderful novel The Great Man -- also about an artist -- the actual subject of the book, Oliver, doesn’t appear in the present all that much. Rather, we learn about him through other people. The tension comes from knowing their admittedly biased recollections alternately poke holes in and illuminate others’. In The Swan Thieves, this convention works brilliantly. Poetically, it transforms Oliver from painter to painting, something observed with little or no backstory. It’s as if he’s been hung in a museum, himself, a mute slave to how others see him.

Oliver’s story is made all the more interesting by a collection of letters he owns -- and which Marlow purloins. They’re a series of letters written during the 19th century between two French artists, one of whom, Beatrice, might have become one of the great Impressionists, had she kept painting. At first, the letters seem to have been included only as a distraction or a secondary layer. As it turns out, why Beatrice didn’t fulfill her apparent destiny is central to the mystery of The Swan Thieves: the answer unlocks both Robert Oliver's motives and his obsession, at the same time.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Literary Classics as Video Games

With the success of Electronic Arts’ recreation of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem as a hack and slash Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 videogame, The Atlantic asks if the “new video-game version of Dante’s Inferno [might] prove the perfect model for introducing readers to difficult classics?” (Can’t you just see them now: playing it in highschool classrooms? Me neither.) The Atlantic’s essay is lengthy and thoughtful, and it’s here.

Meanwhile Wired, who know a thing or three about all things electronic, have put together a list of classic literary works that might inspire games and gamers. Or as Wired’s gaming section, Game|Life quite succinctly put it, they’d “like to humbly suggest 10 more books that would make totally kick-ass games.”

Here’s the list, but it really warrants a trip to the site for Game|Life’s concise and quirky reviewlets of the works in question:

  • Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
  • The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Siddhartha, Herman Hesse
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville
While we know that women who are hardcore gamers are the exception, not the rule, we still can’t help but notice that this list could benefit from some estrogen. Come now: surely some classic chick lit could make this cut? Something by Ayn Rand, Daphne DuMaurier, either Brönte or even Mary Shelley. There have to be some decent game scenarios in at least one of those?


Anne Rice Will Release Vook

To me the whole concept has always sounded like a lot of sizzle for a steak that already exists. After all, we’ve had moving pictures for an awful long time, and interactive medium for long enough to be accepted and, in a lot of cases, expected. How is a video book anything other than excitement about something that, more or less, already exists? (There are real questions, BTW. If you have the answers, let me know.)

Meanwhile, this week, the mildly exciting Vook took on a whole new layer of cool when they announced that Interview of the Vampire author Anne Rice was going to give the video book form a whirl. Rice and Vook will collaborate on a multi-media edition of “The Master of Ramping Gate,” a short story -- complete with vampires -- that was initially published by Redbook back in 1984. From The Washington Post:
“Vook represents a very exciting combination of new technological elements, that I think is long overdo in publishing,” Rice said in a statement released Wednesday by Vook. “I’m excited that ‘The Master of Rampling Gate’ is going to have new life in this form, and cannot wait to see the finished product. I’m not sure that my mind can conceive of all the possibilities of this new form. I’m learning. And it feels good.”

Opinions are still mixed among publishers and authors about video books, or vooks, with some calling them a gimmick and others saying new formats are needed for the Internet age. The product integrates text, video and social networking.
The Washington Post story is here. We’ve written about Vook before, and that’s here. There are two different January Magazine interviews with Rice. They are here and here.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gaiman to Write Episode of Doctor Who

Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, American Gods, Coraline) has indicated he will be writing an upcoming episode of the British television series, Doctor Who.

From BBC News:
During his acceptance speech for best comic at the SFX Awards, Gaiman said: “As anyone who’s read my blog knows, I’m a big fan of a certain long-running British TV series. One that I started watching -- from behind the sofa -- when I was three.

“And while I know it’s cruel to make you wait for things, in about 14 months from now -- which is to say, not in the upcoming season but early in the one after that -- it’s quite possible that I might have written an episode.”
The BBC News items is here. January Magazine’s 2001 interview with Gaiman is here.

New Today: Brigid of Kildare by Heather Terrell

Terrell’s latest novel (after The Map Thief and The Chrysalis) weaves the historic tale of Ireland’s beloved Saint Brigid with a contemporary thread involving an appraiser of medieval relics.

While readers who like their history pure will chafe at the modern bits in Brigid of Kildare (Ballantine), Terrell handles these parts as ably as she does those that introduce us to Ireland’s only woman bishop. The resulting novel is likely more palatable for the uninitiated than a straight-up history might be.

Interestingly, Terrell graduated magna cum laude, focusing on art history, from Boston College. She was also called to the Bar, and spent over a decade as a litigator with several Fortune 500 companies. It’s refreshing to read a novel by a successful lawyer set outside of the courtroom. The world doesn’t need another Grisham, but I can’t imagine anyone reanimating Saint Brigid with quite Terrell’s deftness and delicacy.

Non-Fiction: The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasures of Locally Grown Food by Amy Cotler

So many people are talking about green issues these days, alternative lifestyles have gotten to be mainstream. Long gone are the days when a hostess could plunk a steak down in front of dinner guests without first asking about food preferences and considering the social and moral implications of such an act. In the West, we are critically concerned with the consequences of our actions and while, in broad strokes, that’s a good thing, on a micro level, it can get a little cloying. And you’ve encountered those books. Self-righteous finger-pointers waggling correctively at us while we choke on the meat fiber that would otherwise have been enjoyed.

Amy Cotler’s The Locavore Way (Storey Publishing) isn’t that book. Quite the opposite, in fact. Cotler brings the uninitiated joyously into the fold, while taking those already moving towards a slower food lifestyle more deeply into a world she is comfortable with: both to travel in and to share. She explains herself and her mission succinctly, then shows us how to get to where she’d like us to go: to a place where fresh food is simply cooked and joyously shared. She makes this sound like an attainable place. She makes it sound like Nirvana:
Imagine a healthy landscape, dotted with small farms raising food without ravaging the land, water and air, promoting better-nourished communities and local economies, and creating less dependence of the fossil fuels needed to transport food from afar.
As idyllic as she makes it sound, in subsequent pages she demonstrates that this is more than a distant vision. For many people, it’s a growing reality. With stories, profiles, recipes and tips, Cotler engages us with possibilities and ideas.

Here, from a slender book filled with great real-world examples of how to bring local and organic into your life, a list that breaks things down to its most essential components (something this author does very well):

Why Bother?
10 Reasons to Eat Locally Produced Food:

1. For the sheer pleasure of it.
2. To connect.
3. For the health and safety of your family and yourself.
4. For the health of our planet.
5. To boost the local economy, community and region.
6. For an open, working landscape.
7. To maintain biodiversity.
8. To support our neighboring farms and farmers.
9. To prepare our culinary heritage.
10. To give us a just choice.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

New This Week: The Parabolist by Nicholas Ruddock

It’s impossible not to compare debut novelist Nicholas Ruddock’s The Parabolist (Doubleday Canada) to Vincent Lam’s Giller Award-winning debut from 2006, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. And not just because Lam has offered up a blurb for Parabolist’s cover: “An inventive, poetic and thoroughly wonderful novel,” Lam offers. In some ways he’s right though, certainly, The Parabolist isn’t a patch on Lam’s very wonderful book. Here’s why: both books include some really graphic and disturbing medical details as a device to move narrative forward in ways that are somewhat new and interesting. (I say “somewhat” because, with both books, there were whole passages I actually couldn’t read for fear of loss of lunch.) And both writers employ a distant, detached narrative voice. From The Parabolist:
A few days after the poetry class, Roberto Moreno called Valerie Anderson. She was in the phone book. There were lots of Andersons but not too many V’s.

Perhaps we can spend the day together, he said.

Sure, she said, okay.
But where Lam’s use of distance seemed intentional -- a creative choice, perhaps used to draw our attention from some of the horror that he showed us -- Ruddock’s storytelling style here is obtrusive. One finds it difficult to let the words just flow away because, every time they do, he jolts us back with a reminder of the distance he is creating.

The story is likewise occasionally awkward and not fully realized. There are problems with the timeline: parts of the story seem to move ahead with an almost blurring speed, while others drag on for months. And while it’s fun to run into familiar faces -- a young Gwendolyn MacEwen, for example, gets a cameo and lots of Canadian literary figures have some sort of role, even if off-camera -- their inclusion provides another off-note. Some sort of distant homage: an inside joke, never fully explained. And those are never fun.

The story takes place in Toronto in 1975. A group of medical students are befriended by a Mexican poet, assigned to add culture to their scientific lives. On a night of drunken revelry, one of the students and the poet prevent a rapist from killing his victim and, in the process of their intervention, the rapist is killed. That sounds like a spoiler, but it is not. All of this happens early enough in the book that it is part of the set-up for the events that will follow.

There are some beautiful moments in The Parabolist and readers with a passion for poetry will be especially entranced. There are some great philosophical thoughts here and, actually, some pretty remarkable original poetry. Students and fans of contemporary Canadian fiction will find much here on which to comment. But, for this reader, some of the choices Ruddock made to tell this story were impossibly off-putting. I wanted to love The Parabolist, and though there were parts that I admired, the book seemed never to really allow me to let go and forget and join in.

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Crichton’s Art Collection to Go Under the Hammer

Christie’s auction house has announced that the extensive art collection owned by the late author Michael Crichton will be sold in May.

The author of Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery and many other books had a significant collection of art. It is expected to bring 20 million pounds -- roughly 30 million U.S. dollars -- and includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso.

Christie’s Brett Gorvey told the BBC that the London exhibit of the works to be sold represent “an incredible insight into the mind and personal journey that Michael Crichton made as a collector.”

The BBC piece is here. January Magazine noted Crichton’s passing in 2008 here.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Google and Amazon Trying to Take Over the World? Shut-Up, Please. I Just Want to Read.

Even mainstream news agencies are carrying news about the Google book deal and the Amazon Macmillan electronic rights wars. I’ve read a lot of misinformed articles and cock-eyed assessments of both situations in the last week -- both in the world and on the Web. I’ll bet you have too.

With a few exceptions, we’ve been resisting the urge to comment on either story at January Magazine, other than with the broadest of strokes. This is because, in a very real sense, both stories are outside of our mandate.

January has always been about the celebration of books and reading. There are other -- many other -- publications and blogs whose mandates seems to be to comment on the business end of publishing. It seems to us that, in some ways, there is very little about the publishing industry that has anything to do with books other than making, distributing and selling them. Certainly the appreciation of the written word -- what makes a good book, what ignites that fire in the soul -- has very little to do with the industry of publishing. They are connected thoughts, sure. But they are not the same.

While it can be argued that, in the end without the industry, there can be no books, we would argue back that this is simply not true. These two current situations seem very dire. And to some people, I suppose they are. In the big picture, however, I assure you, they will not be.

I’ve said this before, will likely say it again: when it comes to books, I want my full body immersion. Everything else is just a lot of noise. The industry will go ahead and work out the details and, in a perfect world, everyone will be happy when they do.

When the dust settles -- and it will -- there will be books for us to read. Someone will be publishing them. They might be on paper, they might be electronic. Those involved will make a certain amount of money, or they will not. But, here’s the thing, when I sit near my hearth, or at the beach or under a tree in the summer time, and I have a book in my hand, it will make the world go away. And all of this noise? It doesn’t have a lot to do with that.

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New This Week: In My Sister’s House by Donald Welch

The cover is ridiculous. Lurid and garish, it looks more appropriate to a steamy romance novel best read at the beach. In My Sister’s House (Ballantine/One World) is not that book. Rather it is a sharp and realistic representation of life in urban America. It might not be high art, but neither is it the low brow escape that the cover would suggest.

Skylar Morrison owns a hot Philadelphia nightclub called Legends. As the book begins, her sister, Storm, is released after three years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Determined to get what she feels is hers, she storms Legends in an effort to get half of the nightclub, a share to which she feels entitled. Trouble ensues.

This is actor/singer/playwright Donald Welch’s second novel. The first, 2008’s The Bachlorette Party, was based on one of Welch’s more successful plays. The trouble with Welch’s novels are not with the books themselves. One very much gets the feeling that this talented writer is telling the stories that move him. The trouble is with a marketing department that seems a little unsure of how this clear-eyed, sharp-voiced writer should be shared with the world. One can’t help but think that some of the decisions that have been made in that regard will keep Welch from the part of his potential audience that would appreciate him most deeply... and never mind the existing fans that likely feel the need to keep this book covered if they read on the bus.

Meanwhile, Welch’s fans in the Los Angeles area will want to take note that the hit gospel musical stage play Hallelujah Mahalia!, written and directed by Welch, opens at the the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on February 27th.

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

New Literary Prize Honors Historical Fiction

A new prize will honor the memory and literary passion of Sir Walter Scott with a significant prize:
He is seen as the father of the historical novel, so it’s perhaps only fitting that a new literary prize honouring the genre is to be launched in the name of Sir Walter Scott.

The £25,000 award is being set up by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, whose ancestors were closely linked to Scott. They hope the award will help to “properly honour” the author’s “immense achievements”, and “place as one of the world’s most influential novelists”.
The prize will be presented in June. The Guardian offers up full details here.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

New Today: Blackout by Connie Willis

Though I’m not much on novels of alternate history, Connie Willis’ latest epic, Blackout (Spectra), is really something more. A time-traveling thriller with cultural and scientific implications. Blackout is big, muscular, thoughtful and altogether terrific: a novel quite worthy of the eight year wait for the latest words from the six-time Nebula and 10-time Hugo Award-winning author.

In Blackout we meet the same time-traveling Oxford historians first encountered in Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. This time they pop from the mid-21st century they call home to London and area during The Blitz where they become stranded at the worst possible moment.

Blackout, then, becomes the novel that shouldn’t work. The book with something for everyone that ends up working on every level. It is adventure. It is history. It is science. It is, indeed, thrilling. And it is unforgettable.

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Death of a Crime Writer

(Editor’s note: In the two weeks since author Robert B. Parker suddenly passed away, there’s been a significant outpouring of appreciation for what he contributed to the detective-fiction genre. Most of that has come from American writers, but not exclusively. The following tribute was penned by Jim Napier, a mystery and crime fiction critic who lives in Quebec, Canada, and contributes to the Sherbrooke Record.)

In the literary landscape of crime fiction, Robert B. Parker stood as tall and proud as a Sequoia, firm and never wavering, impossible to miss and commanding our admiration and respect. But on Monday, January 18, the 77-year-old Parker died of a heart attack while sitting at his computer in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, working on the most recent of his numerous novels. Although it came far too soon for his many readers, it was a predictable and fitting end to an impressive life.

Over the preceding 37 years, Parker had written 74 books, some award-winning, almost all of them bestsellers. The bane of creative-writing instructors, he was famous for writing without an outline or notes, even without a story line when he started a book; instead, he would begin with a simple opening premise and just see where it led him. Yet Parker was a disciplined writer, turning out five pages a day (others have said 10) for 50 weeks per year, giving his readers up to three novels annually. As he put it, “I don’t get better by taking my time. My second draft is not an improvement, so I don’t do one.” Hardly good advice for most aspiring writers, but in Parker’s case it served him well.

After a stint with the U.S. Army in Korea during the 1950s, Parker entered Boston University, where his doctoral thesis -- written in just two weeks -- explored the world of such hard-boiled crime-fiction writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. He might easily have remained an academic, but Parker chose instead to swim in the deep end of the pool: he abandoned teaching to turn out increasingly subtle yet readable novels that both developed the detective-fiction genre and entertained millions of fans for the next four decades.

Well into his writing career, Parker was approached by the administrators of the Raymond Chandler estate, who asked him to complete Poodle Springs, a manuscript left unfinished at the time of Chandler’s death in 1959. He did so (the resulting book was published in 1989), and then followed that up with an entirely new Philip Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream (1991), a sequel to Chandler’s 1939 first novel, The Big Sleep. Both are tributes to his mentor, affectionately and impeccably written.

Although firmly in the hard-boiled camp, Parker gave the literary world a kinder, more romantic and far more complex hero than had most of the writers who came before him. His 37 tales about a Boston private eye known only as Spenser (which inspired a popular late-1980s TV series) include subplots that revolve around the P.I.’s private life, and show a gentler, nuanced figure (though he could be tough when he had to be) who treats women as women rather than as objects, and knows his way around a kitchen. And as society evolved, Parker transformed along with it: when his two sons acknowledged that they were gay, Parker found a way to explore that fact through his novels, and did so with insight and sensitivity.

While continually adding to the Spenser oeuvre, in the late 1990s Parker began to pen a couple of other series, including half a dozen stories featuring Sunny Randall, a female Boston ex-cop turned gumshoe. Although some people criticized the protagonist as merely Spenser in drag, after awhile the series took on a unique persona, and now stands on its own.

Branching out in other directions, Parker also wrote nine rather darker novels about Jesse Stone, a flawed small-town police chief based in New England, and more than a dozen standalone works.

Let’s be clear: Parker’s books don’t qualify as great literature, whatever that may be. But they are well-written, entertaining yarns that often raise important issues, which is all Parker ever sought or claimed for them. If his plots sometimes seem a bit mundane, it’s because he dealt with events involving believable people caught up in the ebb and flow of real life. And his seemingly light, breezy style often masks some tough questions more frequently found in so-called literary novels. Parker’s skillful use of a first-person viewpoint and sharp, witty dialogue recalls the best of the American hard-boileds, yet his books are unmistakably of our time. In the last Spenser novel published before his death (2009’s The Professional), the hero never uses his gun, and only uses his fists once, to avoid having a conflict escalate into gunfire. True to the hard-boiled mantra, the resolution of the conflict is by cosmic, rather than legal, means: a killer is made to pay for his crimes and justice is served, but in a way that the judicial system could never accommodate. It is a book that profoundly explores manipulation, guilt and accountability in the context of shifting social mores.

Not only did he receive two Edgar Awards for his novels, but in 2002 Parker was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, an honor he shared with such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, John Le Carré, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Stephen King. The event acknowledged his place in the pantheon of great crime writers. Yet throughout his career he remained approachable and helpful to emerging authors.

Parker’s influence in the crime-writing fraternity has been enormous. With Spenser he liberated the character of the hard-boiled protagonist from the one-dimensional portrayals of the 1930s and ’40s, and transformed him into a likable, even admirable figure: an ex-boxer with an addiction to cinnamon doughnuts, who was also an accomplished cook, a dog lover, and not least of all, a man who could admire beautiful women while staying true to his partner -- all without weakening his hero’s masculinity. This opened the door for other writers to take similar paths, adding to the richness of the genre. Parker’s impact has been acknowledged by such renowned crime writers as Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. In a 2007 interview with Atlantic Monthly, Coben said that “When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”

Survived by his wife, Joan (to whom he dedicated almost all of his books), and his two sons, David and Daniel, Robert B. Parker left the literary world a legacy that, happily, will continue to shape detective fiction for a very long time.

(Author photo by John Earle. Used with permission.)

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Prizes Lost, Heroes Found

In a week that seems likely to be filled with book news of the maddening kind, it’s fun to come across a story that celebrates books and reminds us of the excitement they can bring.

The announcement of Lost Man Booker, seems designed to help us refocus on what's really important about books and how they can influence our culture and our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Here’s the setup: two years after the Booker Prize began, it was no longer awarded as a retrospective. According to the Man Booker foundation, it became, “as it is today, a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. At the same time, the date on which the award was given moved from April to November. As a result of these changes, there was whole year’s gap when a wealth of fiction, published in 1970, fell through the net. These books were simply never considered for the prize.”

And what a wealth it was, too. When you look at the longlist, which has just been announced, the mind reels with possibilities and wonder. There is, quite literally, something here for everyone: for every reading taste in the English language:
The Lost Man Booker Prize is the brainchild of Peter Straus, honorary archivist to the Booker Prize Foundation. He comments, "I noticed that when Robertson Davies's Fifth Business was first published it carried encomiums from Saul Bellow and John Fowles both of whom judged the 1971 Booker Prize. However judges for 1971 said it had not been considered or submitted. This led to an investigation which concluded that a year had been excluded. I am delighted that, even in a Darwinian way, this year, with so many extraordinary novels, can now be covered by the Man Booker Prize."
Though the poll has still to be posted, you’ll get the chance to vote on the shortlist via the Man Booker Web site. The shortlist will then be announced in March, while the winner will be announced in May.

Here’s the longlist:
  • Brian Aldiss, The Hand Reared Boy
  • H.E.Bates, A Little Of What You Fancy?
  • Nina Bawden, The Birds On The Trees
  • Melvyn Bragg, A Place In England
  • Christy Brown, Down All The Days
  • Len Deighton, Bomber
  • J.G.Farrell, Troubles
  • Elaine Feinstein, The Circle
  • Shirley Hazzard, The Bay Of Noon
  • Reginald Hill, A Clubbable Woman
  • Susan Hill, I’m The King Of The Castle
  • Francis King, A Domestic Animal
  • Margaret Laurence, The Fire Dwellers
  • David Lodge, Out Of The Shelter
  • Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat
  • Shiva Naipaul, Fireflies
  • Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
  • Joe Orton, Head To Toe
  • Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven
  • Ruth Rendell, A Guilty Thing Surprised
  • Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat
  • Patrick White, The Vivisector

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Monday, February 01, 2010

SF/F: El Borak and Other Desert Adventures by Robert E. Howard

Don’t get me wrong: I’m confident that 2010 will be filled with fantastic new books and even new voices in the twinned genres of science fiction and fantasy. Even so, I think it’s going to be tough for me to get as excited about another book as I am about Del Rey’s release this month of El Borak and Other Desert Adventures by the tragic and doomed Robert E. Howard, the prolific pulp writer-of-all-trades who, in 1936, died tragically and by his own hand when he was just 30.

That alone gives me pause. When you consider both Howard’s incredible output as well as the legacy he left, it’s very sad to think what he would have achieved had been given -- had he taken -- another 30 years. Our loss.

Howard was one of the most influential pulp authors of the 20th century. He is credited with the creation of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. In El Borak and Other Desert Adventures we are treated to a really terrific collection of Howard’s stories, highlighted by one of his best-known creations, the Texan adventurer Xavier Gordon, known as El Borak and set on adventure in the deserts of the east.

Almost as special as this resurrection of some of Howard’s most important stories are the illustrations that have been created for this volume. The art of Jim and Ruth Keegan and Tim Bradstreet are well known in SF/F and the inclusion of specially commissioned work here contributes to making this volume feel like much more than the republication of Howard’s stories: it feels like a respectful celebration of his electric, irreplaceable voice.

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