Here be Dragons

Archive for August, 2013

Paranormal Thriller Review: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

Synopsis:


The plot of this novel revolves around Charles Talent Manx, his enemy Vic (Victoria) McQueen and her family. Both Vic and Manx have the same gift – a very vivid imagination which allows them to create new worlds and move between them and reality, bending space-time continuum with the help of some special objects.  These objects include, but are not limited to, a vintage Rolls-Roys Wraith and a much humbler Tuff Burner bike. Of course it’s not all. Charles can persuade anybody to do anything he wants as long as he gets them into his car. Vic can find any lost object or person she wants. Those two are soon on a collision course because individuals with unusual gifts attract each other’s attention.


 Vic is aided from time to time by Margaret Leigh, a stuttering librarian who loves Scrabbles to no end and understands the gift like nobody else; Manx’s current henchman is a mentally retarded man with a criminal record called Bing. Both strive to protect what they love the best. In the case of Charles Manx it is a place called Christmasland and its inhabitants, the children he’d abducted, allegedly to protect them against their families and the ugly world around. In the case of Vic it’s her son, Wayne, and her partner, Louis.  The war between them will be long and bloody, especially after kidnapping  Wayne.  Still you must pay for every gift and Vic cannot fathom how steep price will be demanded of her.

My impressions:

My first general remark: any decent writer having so many good plot ideas would write a series – three books at least, perhaps even four or six if the first two got off financially. Joe Hill wrote one long, great novel and gained my admiration.

My second general remark: in this book I found one of the best baddies I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in the literature. I loved to hate Charles Talent Manx, a man who would love to have Christmas every single day, all year round. He was three-dimensional and hideous and fascinating at the same time. He was a psychological vampire and it suited me to no end and his car…well, I love vintage cars so it worked exceedingly well, reminding me a bit about Christine by Stephen King. Still Rolls Royce Wraith was better. It was a real beast.



Vic McQueen was also a lovely heroine – a kick-ass girl who had her own demons and vulnerabilities which sometimes made her stronger and sometimes made her like a soft putty in the hands of her opponent. It also took her quite a long time to figure out how her gift worked and what it entailed. Here Manx had a clear advantage over her because he was way older and experienced.

Vic  and Lou’s romance…once again it worked and I couldn’t believe how well it worked for me. It was very moving, real and just fantastic. No, they didn’t marry because Vic didn’t believe in marriage (and small wonder, taking into account her family history) but the bond between them was stronger than the bond between many fictional married couples. Especially that both of them were hardly flawless – Lou was seriously overweight and adult Vic was both drug and alcohol addict.

Now the fictional world of magic and space-time tricks. Shorter Way Bridge (Vic’s way around) was good but Christmasland (Manx’s special kingdom of sorts) was mesmerizing – really one of the more original and scariest places I’ve ever visited while reading horrors/thrillers. It was very cleverly constructed, being similar to some places from my nightmare – allegedly harmless but with that atmosphere that sends chills down your spine and makes your hair curl. In fact I think such a place would be a dream come true to any thriller director – it can sell any movie in no time, especially during Christmas, to such weirdoes like me.

Final verdict: 

If you like thrillers, go read it. If you don’t like thrillers, go read it.Yes, it was an awesome book, confident and at times ruthless, moving along at a determined pace, never looking back. I loved it.
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Fantasy Review: ‘The Tainted City’ by Courtney Schafer

Oh boy, finally a book that allows me to use up all the reviewer clichés in one go!  You don’t know how long I have waited for this.  Stop the printing; I am sure the next round of paperbacks is going to want a few of these blurbs for the back.  I’ll even make it easy and place quotes around what a publisher may want to blurb, because that is the kind of helpful guy I am.

“Even better than the original!”

‘Whitefire Crossing’ was a fine, fine book on its own.  A quick pace, tight cast of characters, plenty of excitement and a world that was laid in front of the reader in just the right amounts to avoid ever being dull.  While it tied up its loose ends, we were left with both of our protagonist in captivity, an extremely pissed of powerful mage promising to get his way.  Can the series shift from a two man escape story to a save the land type of one?  Oh yes, it certainly can.

Back to the city of Ninavel, home of magical anarchy, we go.  Dev is bound to rival Alathians, those who imprisoned him in WC.  Something unknown is attacking the confluence, the magical force that drew all the mages to Ninavel in the first place.  Whatever it is it’s threatening to tear down the Alathian’s magical barrier as well, so an unlikely alliance is forged between their chosen team and, Ruslan (main villain of the first book), enforced by an oath sworn to the ruler of Ninavel .

“The rare middle book that holds up on its own!”

What this second outing gives us is a completely different style, but it does so in a way that makes it seem similar.  The two POV narration style is back, with Dev in first person and Bloodmage Kiran in third (I have tried to reword that sentence a couple times, and you know what, the awkward phrasing stays.  Don’t judge me).  As they end up working for rival sides this allows us to keep up with both ends of the investigation, giving the book a magical whodunit feel with a apocalyptic threat hanging over the entire investigation.  This shift in style keeps the book from ever being in danger or rehashing old territory, despite some similar threats to the protagonists.  Dev helps with the investigation, but still is trying to save his friends daughter, all while knowing he is surrounded by people who can kill him with a thought.  Kiran’s story takes a completely different turn that would be hard to discuss without spoilers, but his love then hate relationship with Ruslan again plays the biggest role.  

Knowing that the city of Ninavel doesn’t just feed the mages the power they crave, but the magi are the only thing keeping the city’s residences alive, the stakes feel quite high indeed.  No the world won’t end, but one city certainly could be snuffed.  So while we know this is a middle book, and we know it is likely the protagonists are going to survive, it is not so clear whether or not anyone else they have interacted with will.

Speaking of the magic, a small note.   Though mysterious it stays believable, and it is one of the more memorable set ups I have read recently.  But I sure would like to learn a bit about the non-blood mages; there is supposed to be a diverse cast of them but we never see how they are really different.

The book finishes up in a similar manner as the first one.  With the main storyline wrapped up nicely but enough interesting threads to have me craving the sequel.  One of the most interesting dynamics of the book was the heroes being forced to work with a major villain to go against a different villain.  Especially when the secondary villain’s cause seems nobler, even if his actions to reach the goal are deplorable.  It is only a minor spoiler to note that though Ruslan may be working with Dev and Co., he remains a baddie throughout and the third book promises some big fireworks for a possible final showdown.  Great stuff.

Oh geez, time is almost up; better throw out a few more clichés!

“I have been a fan of the author for years” –Oh, not really true, just discovered her this year.

“A truly unique voice” – Good, but not really snappy enough.

“The best Urban Fantasy I have read in a long time” – Wait, how did that one get in there?

“The series has had me hooked from page one” –There it is, that’s the ticket.  Let’s go with that one.

4 Stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Ritual of the Stones’ by Rob Donovan

I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king’s only son… This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there’s a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.

The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there’s Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn’t about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact’s eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.

There’s also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman’s evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.

To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There’s Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn’t she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can’t or won’t. For instance, Janna, Rhact’s daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I’d happily read a whole book about her.

The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We’re in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman’s period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.

The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending ‘quality time’ with his son, and Rhact’s son having ‘teenage’ moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that’s just me. There there was the horse who was ‘saddled’ in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there’s some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.

None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it’s a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king’s knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as ‘the boy’ or ‘two men’ or ‘the elderly woman’. I’m still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?

This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren’t concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars.

Up In The Loft – Books In Storage For Now

Less than a year ago when this blog began I put in a submissions page because that how it is done.  I don’t think we had big lofty goals for the blog, we wanted to watch numbers grow but never expected to get a whole lot of focus.  I assumed I would get an occasional submission from a self published author, and at first that is what happened.  And at first I read all of them.  About one a month would come in, and I thanked each author and tried their book.  It was a nice little dynamic that added a little variety to my reading.

About four months ago a floodgate opened.  I read, on average, a hundred books a year.  That’s not quite two books a week. Last week I got four submissions.  I have even started receiving them from traditional published authors from mid-level publishers, though that is rarer. Obviously I can’t read them all, though believe me I want to.  I want to read every damn book I see.  Some of these submissions are really interesting, I just can’t seem to fit them in.  Love steampunk, but I have read three that might fit that category this month, and have four more lined up through galleys and submissions. Chances are I will only read one or two of them over the next few months.  A time frame I expect to garner even more options.  A vicious cycle.

I don’t want to stop taking requests, I have found some real gems from them.  I just didn’t think it fair to continue to ignore some of these, and don’t want people to think I am not listening.

So I wanted to start a semi-regular post, borrowed from some other bloggers, in which case a showcase a few books that look interesting but just are not going to make my reading schedule at the present.  That is not to say they won’t in the future, but I hate for readers to miss out on even knowing about them due to no one mentioning them.

Because we love cutesy names here in the Barn, these books will be moved from the main shelf into the loft, thus the feature’s name.  Without further ado, a few books that have caught my eye.  All synopsis are from Goodreads.
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Odd Men Out by Matt Betts

The Civil war has ended but not because the South surrendered, instead it’s on hold while both sides face a new enemy—the chewers, dead men who’ve come back to life. Cyrus Joseph Spencer didn’t fight in the war and couldn’t care less about the United Nations of America that resulted from it. His main concern is making money and protecting his crew from all manner of danger. But when tragedy strikes he’s forced to take shelter onboard a dirigible piloted by the U.N.’s peace-keeping force. It’s soon apparent that many more dangers are lurking and Cyrus must decide whether to throw in with strangers in a desperate bid to protect the country or cast off on his own.

I love me some Steampunk as I have said before.  This is the book threatening to come back down the most.
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Bang Bang by Patrick Malloy

Youthimax is a cure-all miracle drug from Johnson and Johnson which has all but eliminated death in modern society. Which is great news. Unless you work at a funeral home. The O’Rourke Funeral Home in West Philadelphia has fallen into obscurity, along with it’s two sole employees. Max and Bligh waste the days away sleeping in coffins and counting shovels until that fateful day that they decide to become serial killers. 

An intersting premise, but I am not much for horror books, even if they promise black comedy.  Plus the Goodreads’ synopsis was a rambling mess, leaving me less than excited.  But the book certainly caught my eye, so in it goes. 
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Theatre of the Gods by M. Suddain



This is the story of M. Francisco Fabrigas, explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist, who took a shipful of children on a frightening voyage to the next dimension, assisted by a teenaged Captain, a brave deaf boy, a cunning blind girl, and a sultry botanist, all the while pursued by the Pope of the universe and a well-dressed mesmerist.

Dark plots, demonic cults, murderous jungles, quantum mayhem, the birth of creation, the death of time, and a creature called the Sweety: all this and more waits beyond the veil of reality.

This one was a little different, I actually requested the galley and just cant find myself in the mood for sci-fi.  So in storage it goes, and one day, who knows? 
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That’s all for now. 
Barn Image by Alan D. and Elaine R. Wilson via http://www.naturespicsonline.com.

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction – a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But – oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in – well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.

The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or – well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.

If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear – compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking… There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.

As for the characters, there’s only one who matters – Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty – I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.

The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers – I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.

The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.

This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.

Steampunk Review: ‘Conspiracy’ by Lindsay Buroker

Possible spoilers from earlier books in the series.

More of the same from Amaranthe and her loveable group of criminals, and in no way is that a bad thing.  For those who don’t know, the series follows former Enforcer Amaranthe and her crew through light steampunk world as they try to clear their name and keep the Empire, and more importantly the Emperor himself, safe from those who want to remake the land in their own ideal.  She comes up with harebrained plans, the crew grumbles then follows along anyway, and things end up ok in the end.  Usually.

At the end of the last book the group learns that Emperor does indeed know of both the Emperor’s Edge (the name of Amaranthe’s group) and of the danger to himself.  In fact he wants to arrange his own kidnapping away from his handlers.  And thus begins ‘Conspiracy,’ in which the group trains for a train heist (bad pun).  As in the last two books one member of the group takes over as the secondary story, this time it is he of the bad attitude, wannabe mage and former street punk Akstyr.  Akstyr does some major soul searching and considers what kind of person he is looking to be, but thankfully doesn’t distract from the main story.

The book started out slower for me than previous outings; the early set up was missing some of the witty dialog that really carries the series.  The first third is also a much darker outing than we are accustomed too, something that doesn’t mesh with expectations and didn’t work as well for me.  Thankfully  once the heist is actually underway  the book snaps back to what I read the series for; snappy infighting and wacky hijinks!

Amaranthe is still enjoyable, Sicarius is still unbelievably glum (and forgiven for trespasses too easily), and Maldynado is still my favorite shameless pretty boy.  Yara is back from the last book and is paired with Maldynado for some of the best laughs in the book.  The Emperor has been seen before, but he really shows some personality here and he is a very convincing character.  Strong and sure at times as the leader of the land should be, hesitant and even scared at times as a young man with hell thrown at him would be.

The book ends on a major cliffhanger.  While the Akstyr plot line is given some closure, nothing else is.  In some ways this is a good thing, by meeting the Emperor this series is leaving the “wacky adventure of the month” serial it was in danger of becoming and plunging into an over arching plot line.  But this isn’t a minor cliffhanger we are left on, but rather a season finale type that makes me glad the next book is already out (actually the whole series is done, good for fans).

Another fun entry in the series, still something a recommend, but something about the first third just didn’t jive with me.  Still, once again it was a book I couldn’t put down and read in 2 days.

3 Stars

Streampunk Review: ‘Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl’ by David Barnett

Steampunk adventure!  This book was like reading a blockbuster movie, and it was a whole lot of fun.  Like most blockbusters that come up in the summer months you have to prepare for some conveniences, assume all the characters will find a way to end up in the same spot, and do your best NOT to wonder what the hell the protagonist is thinking at times.  But if one can enjoy the typical summer movie, and sales figures show that most people can, then “Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl” should become a very popular book.

Gideon is a fisherman’s son.  In a nice change of pace, despite having his head in the clouds, he is a strong, responsible young man.  He has big dreams of following in the footsteps of his favorite penny-dreadful hero, Captain Trigger.  When his father is lost at sea a chain of events starts up that gives him his chance.  He heads out to find the famous captain and start his adventure! 

From there it is pure pulpy goodness with all the normal steampunk trimmings.  Airships and pirates, supernatural beings, smart alleck men and plucky women.  Based in an Elizabethan England that truly threatens to span the globe a reader can also expect little historical cameos that will either work or drive them loony.  In this case I felt the cameos worked well, Bram Stoker as a chronicler especially.  The inevitable ragtag group will globe trot to solve the mystery, and often to save the title’s heroine, Maria.  Friendships are made, double crossing is to be expected, and eventually all the pieces come together (tied up very nicely I may add).  Because it is obviously a first book of a series not everything is OK at the end, but the book ends on just as strong of a note as it started, with a hint of more adventure to follow.

Steampunk fans rejoice, there is a highly enjoyable new book on the lighter side of the genre.  Gideon avoids being a trite farm boy on a mission by proving to be smart and able, learning as he goes in a fairly believable fashion.  Sure his willingness to believe penny dreadfuls is a bit strange, but haven’t we already talked about suspending belief a bit?  Bent is a no-worries smart ass journalist good for a lot of laughs.  The crew has fun interactions, the plot doesn’t get so complicated as to tie itself up in a knot, and the action scenes are fun but short enough to avoid becoming a grind.

If the book is going to turn off some readers it most likely is going to come from the plight of Maria, the mechanical girl from the title.  She is at her core a toy in the form of a beautiful girl who has been given sentience.  Hidden in this light hearted action movie-like romp is a character that has been put through a living hell.  She is abused throughout the book; physically, sexually, and mentally.  At each point it is used to advance the story; even Maria shrugs it off and goes on without dwelling on it.  It doesn’t ruin the story, it is not gratuitous and in fact is easy to overlook.  But I couldn’t not see it throughout the story; she is the lynchpin of the story but never by her own design.

Hey, I am a man who loves a Steampunk romp.  I am happy to see a new series started that looks like it has a lot of potential.  I found a whole lot to like about what I read, and hope to read more in the future.

4 Stars

Review copy received through NetGalley.

edit:  Crossed out a pretty embarrassing historical mistake.  Sometimes writing these late at night causes problems.  Sorry!

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