ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

July 29, 2010

“No” = “No” – Quick Shots

So I’m currently reading a novella by Yvonne Lindsay, and before I get to some of the most hilarious physical descriptions I have ever read, there was a line I thought definitely merited some discussion.

‘Clearly the word “no” simply meant “try harder” for men like Richard Wells.’

– Lindsay, Y., 2010, The Magnate’s Mistress-for-a-Month [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p. 106

If there were no stories in the world about men chasing women, then there would be… a LOT fewer stories. Like, a LOT. However, what often happens in romance novels, and is definitely happening here, as far as I can see, is that this pursuit turns into something that is actually quite frightening. In this novella, Richard, the hero, sees Catherine, the heroine, riding a horse, decides he must have her, and sets off to make it happen, including encroaching on her personal space very significantly within about four seconds of having met her. If this happened in real life, he would be up on sexual harassment charges very, VERY quickly.

This is a line that often gets blurred in romance fiction – especially in category romance fiction, where space is so limited – that I wish was a little more clear. ‘No’ definitely does mean ‘no’, and not ‘try harder’. Pursuit is one thing (though the double standard around it is a whole other thing – the woman who pursues is usually portrayed as desperate) but what is basically tantamount to stalking is quite another indeed. One is a literary device – not my favourite one, but a device nonetheless. The other is bad. I really don’t like the trope of the man who just can’t control himself – it’s demeaning to men and dangerous to women.

In short? Sexual harassment should not be used as shorthand.

And now, for the funnies. Some of the best physical descriptions I have EVER read. I killed myself laughing.

‘[He was] always an early riser – in more ways than one, he smiled ruefully.’

– ibid., p.96

What’s the story, morning glory?

‘His nose was a straight blade of male perfection.’

– ibid., p.100

…are you sure you’re talking about his nose?

July 25, 2010

WTFemininity: Reading ‘The CEO’s Expectant Secretary’

Filed under: funnies — Jodi @ 12:40 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Like any genre, there are good romance novels and then there are really, really bad ones. We’re not even talking about the themes and gender roles and all the other stuff I crap on about all the time. In any genre, you get bits that just make you say… ‘WTF? Did someone actually think about they were writing here?’

Early on in Leanne Banks’s ‘The CEO’s Expectant Secretary’ I had one of those WTF moments – a moment so WTF-y I had to share it.

‘The contrast of the cream ceramic tile against her cherry coloured toenails emphasised her femininity.’

– Banks, L., 2010, The CEO’s Expectant Secretary [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.14

I just cannot make head or tail of this sentence. I do not get it at all. Does femininity have a colour code? WTF? Can anyone decode this?

ETA: A little further in now, and here’s another bit I just don’t get:

‘Elle felt an amazing connection with Brock ripple through her. How amazing that their child would be born in the same month as Brock’s father.’

– ibid., p.49

Um… not that amazing, honey. Not necessarily bad romance (though there is this whole forced marriage plot going on that I would have a lot to say about if I wasn’t so busy WTFing) but definitely bad writing – or at least writing that has gone whoosh as it travelled over my head.

ETA again: I might as well be liveblogging this book. There is just so much I do not get, so much to WTF about.

‘She felt both strong and delicate against him.’

-ibid., p.58

…how? huh?

ETA again: ‘”But I like shopping in outlets. It’s like hunting is for men. Bagging the one with the biggest rack in one shot.”‘

– ibid., p. 73

I do not get this book.

ETA again: ‘”Trust me, I have no oedipal urges.”‘

ibid., p.129

Thanks for clarifying, hero-boy.

ETA again: Okay, this I just thought was awesome.

‘”By the price I paid, I knew Mummy wasn’t slumming,” Brock murmured.’

– ibid., p.161

I love it. Brock the multisquillionaire business tycoon who is cold and ruthless in the office and a dynamo rocket in the bedroom (and who also has ‘laser blue eyes’) calls his mother ‘Mummy’. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

January 31, 2010

How Not to Introduce a Hero – Quick Shots

Hi all! I’m back and hopefully posting on a more regular basis now that the Australian Open is drawing to a close and I can indulge my love of writing about romance fiction rather than my love of writing about tennis.

A quick shot to get back on the horse – I wrote a few weeks ago about how not to introduce a heroine, using examples from Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy. Today, the coin is flipped. Here we have a classic alpha-arsehole (alphole) category hero. What a prince this guy sounds like.

“…he remembered the open, trusting, dark eyes of the voluptuously proportioned swamp brat he’d seduced and then jilted nine years ago to save his twin brother, Jake.”

– Major, A., 2009, To Tame Her Tycoon Lover [Harlequin], pp.1-2

Because… I routinely save my siblings by seducing swamp brats. That, um, makes sense. And makes me SUCH A NICE PERSON.

I’m only a few chapters into this book, so I’m suspecting this particular hero (his name is Logan, for those of you wondering) will improve and be redeemed by the POWAH OF TWOO WUV sometime soon. But at the moment… he’s pretty much an alphole. He’s some big business tycoon who’s come home to his palatial Lousiana home to visit his sick grandpa, to find out that said seduced swamp brat, now a successful war journalist, is looking after said grandpa. Does he say, ‘thank you, how nice?’ No, he tries to invalidate her lease and make her leave, even though she is doing him a huge favour, because it means his grandpa doesn’t have to go into a home (grandpa not keen on leaving palatial plantation home).

In short, he’s a total prick. The whole seducing incident aside, which verges on sexual assault.

Redemption is something that we see a lot of in romance fiction, particularly in heroes – it’s a very popular trope, redeeming your hero through the power of love. It even ties into that Foucault stuff I’m always yapping on about, about how the heroine replaces the playboy hero’s ‘wild’ sexuality with her own model (domestic bliss, feat. solid monogamy). But it’s books like these that pose the question – there has to be something worth redeeming in the first place, surely? If you start the book loathing the hero, how can you possibly want him to end up with the heroine?

…unless you loathe the heroine as well and wish them joy in their miserable little world together. But with this book, that’s not the case – the heroine, Cici, is really quite likeable. I want her to tell his punk arse off, instead of ending up with him – I want to win, not to surrender. And I think that means that this novel is flawed, right from the very beginning, because the hero and the heroine do not deserve each other.

Wow. Didn’t intend to end up there when I started this ramble. But it’s food for thought…

January 5, 2010

Oh Karen Templeton No! #4 … … …whaddidyousay, sugar?

Oh no you DIDN’T, Karen Templeton. You did not emphasise how much Karleen loves her autonomy and is not miserable and likes being single and doesn’t want to be codependent to have her BFF come out with this absolute bullshit:

”” All Karleen’s ever wanted is to be won over, by a man more stubborn than she is.”‘

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p. 196

Nothing else. Just a pigheaded man.

OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

…and it gets worse. Troy pays rent on an apartment for Karleen’s drunken aunt – without telling her, obviously, because she’s one of them stoopid wimminz who can’t take care of themselves. And Karleen thinks:

“And where Troy got off playing God. The creep. And why his doing so was making her heart go pitty-pat in a way it had never done before.” (pp.225-6)

Because all she needed was a man to fix her problems for her. Them stoopid wimminz!

No, Karen Templeton. NO.

Oh Karen Templeton No! #3 – Them Stoopid Wimminz!

Still not finished on this book! This time, we’re tackling parochialism and the ‘them stoopid wimminz!’ mentality. Again, Pride and Pregnancy is not the worst book I’ve ever read in this area. But it’s the one I’m reading while I’m in a ranty mood, and so…

…the next time I read a parochial hero – especially one who, up till now, has been a Good Guy ™ – I am throwing the book at the wall.

The scene: Karleen has just discovered that her session of afternoon delight with hero Troy has left her knocked up. He wants to marry her ‘for practicality’ (so she can go on his health insurance, even though she has her own), she tells him to get stuffed. I still don’t like Karleen and her clothes (sidenote: in their sex scene, Templeton describes Karleen’s underwear as ‘pale pink embroidered silk high-cuts’ – OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!), but I like that she’s determined to be independent. There was a scene earlier I thought was good where Karleen’s BFF was all alike, ‘when did you fall off the man wagon? OMG u hav no man sooo sad!!!1!’ and Karleen, quite rightly, verbally bitchslaps her with something along the lines of, ‘I don’t no man!’

But I digress. So Karleen is determined to be independent. Troy, who has hitherto been reasonably decent, agrees with uncharacteristic sourness. And then comes this parochial exchange with Blake, his business partner:

‘”Meaning, at least I’m in the position to take care of both Karleen and this baby. But she’s not having any of it.”

“As in, marriage?”

“Well, yes. Except she’s insisting we didn’t know each other well enough or have enough in common to make a marriage work.”

“Not that she has a valid point or anything.”

“Especially since she’s been married three times already.”

“Dude.”

“Yeah. …Karleen’s got a real thing about trying to stand on her own two feet.”

“There’s a lot of that going around these days,” Blake said dryly, referring, Troy supposed, to his own wife, Cass, who – despite being broke and, as it happened, also pregnant – had given Blake a similar song-and-dance before finally agreeing to remarry him last year.’

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boons] p.111

This is by no means the worst scene of its kind in romance fiction. But still, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t rewrite it like this:

TROY: So Karleen should totally give up this crap autonomy thing she’s harping on about and just marry me. Y’know, so I could be a Real Man and paternalistically take care of them.

BLAKE: Yeah, them wimminz are real stoopid sometimes… don’t know what’s good for ’em!

Say it with me – OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

ETA: Two pages later, Blake manages to say what I was saying. So Karen Templeton knows exactly what her subtext is. But that don’t mean it ain’t parochial…

‘”But here’s a newsflash, buddy – women don’t much like being given ultimatums. And they especially don’t like feeling like somebody’s threatening their autonomy. Doesn’t matter what the motive is, or that you’re only doing whatever it is ‘for their own good’.” (p.113)

Or you could read it this way:

BLAKE: Them stoopid irrational wimminz! They don’t understand what’s good for ’em, even if you try to tell ’em. Too busy being all damn autonomous to let us take ’em under our patriarchal wing and take care of ’em!

Your Heroine Is Not Your Barbie – Quick Shots

I’m slogging my way through Pride and Pregnancy and I made it a whole two paragraphs further before I found something that completely rubbed me up the wrong way. I hate, hate, HATE when people insist on describing their character’s clothes in unnecessary detail. I realise this has nothing to do with the Proper Grown Up Academic Study of Romance Novels ™ but it drives me absolutely NUTS.

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to read the first chapter, and every time the author makes an unnecessary note of some facet of a character’s clothing, I’m going to write it down. Because I have a feeling this is going to be one of those books and THIS TREND MUST STOP.

– gardening gloves, covering press-on nails (p.8)

– beaded slides (p.8)

– eighties retro hair (p.11)

– stretchy pants (p.11)

– “the top rode high” (p.11)

– “the bellybutton sparkled like the North Star” (p.11)

– “a delicate gold chain hugged her ankle” (p.12)

– “assortment of fake gemstone rings” (p.12)

– “tugging a straw coloured hair out of her lipstick” (p.13)

– “her cheeks pinked way beyond the makeup” (p.14)

– “he also didn’t miss the lack of panty lines underneath all that soft, snuggly fabric” (p.15)

– “umbrella sized straw hat” (p.17)

– entire conversation about authenticity of Karleen’s boobs (p.19)

– not exactly clothing, but could be considered an accessory – “trusty Swiss Army knife” (p. 22)

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon]

Obviously, there are situations when a little description is a good thing. But YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT YOUR BARBIES. Clothes are not the window to the soul. I really, really don’t care what they are wearing. Am I alone here? Maybe. But this is why (well, one of the many reasons) I had to stop reading those cracktastic Anita Blake books. Round about Book #8, they started degenerating into sex scenes and descriptions of what people were wearing linked together by something to do with vampires and werewolves and… was there more plot? It was dressed up so much I missed it, obscured by the trappings.

Less is more. This is a lesson I could use in all aspects of my own writing, but when it comes to clothing your characters, this really, really irritates me. If your heroine’s beaded slides are magical and will be used to save the world, tell me all about them! But don’t tell me about her umbrella-sized straw hat, unless it is the nemesis of the beaded slides and turns whoever wears it evil. And if every single article of clothing your characters are wearing are magical and vital to the plot, you know what you need to do?

Write a goddamn better book.

January 4, 2010

How Not To Introduce A Heroine – Quick Shots

I’ve just returned to the world of category romance after being blown away by Jenny Crusie. I’m two pages in, but I had to share this.

I’m reading Pride and Pregnancy, a Harlequin from 2007, picked purely by virtue of its hilarious title. It opens thusly:

“By the time she was thirty, Karleen Almquist had signed three sets of divorce papers, at which point she decided to make things easier on herself and just get a hamster.”

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.7

I thought this was a pretty good opening line. I chuckled a little, I confess. Templeton goes on to muse that ‘they [hamsters] weren’t of much use in the sack, but then the same could be said of most husbands’. I chuckled a little more.

But then we see Karleen, our heroine, burying one of her beloved hamsters in the backyard. We get a woman with a shovel scene, hamster graveyard, ra ra ra, then… this:

“Fond of Melvin [being her late hamster] as she’d been, it had taken the better part of an hour to glue on these nails and damned if she was going to ruin them for a dead hamster.” [Templeton, p.8]

Gee, Karen Templeton. Way to make your heroine totally unlikeable. Pet > nails.

I’ll keep you posted on how manicured Karleen progresses…

December 22, 2009

The Wonderful World of Category Titles

Filed under: funnies — Jodi @ 5:45 am
Tags: , , ,

Seriously, I don’t know if there is anything in the world quite as amusing as the titles of category romance. If there is one thing in the world that makes people think romance is worthless trash, I reckon those titles are up there as a contender. (They’re in close competition with the covers. Fabio is hard to beat).

My personal favourite from today:

Bedded for Passion, Purchased for Pregnancy.

How can you not laugh at a title like that? Talk about removing the mystery…

December 20, 2009

Jade Lee and the Pen – Quick Shots

Filed under: quick shots — Jodi @ 11:24 am
Tags: , , ,

So I think I might have been being a bit too kind to Jade Lee on the tantric front before. Not knowing a great deal about it myself, and knowing that tantra is multifarious and diverse, I was prepared to cut her a break on the portrayal of tantra in Getting Physical, on account of maybe she did some research that I don’t know about, or whatever.

But I just looked up her website, and the prequel (effectively) to Getting Physical is about another Tantric master and his amazing student/pupil/sexual muse/whatevs, and it’s called The Tao of Love.

I may not know a great deal about tantra and vajrayana and whatnot, but I do have a major in Asian religion, and Taoism most emphatically does not equal tantra. Tantra is, to my knowledge, something that comes out of the Vedic tradition, and then was picked up by Buddhism (which has its roots in India). It is not, not, not Taoist.

The Taoist do have some sexual rites, if I recall correctly. They were in pursuit of xian – immortality – and one of the ways you could achieve it was by stealing someone else’s chi. You could do this by having sex with them, ensuring they orgasmed but not orgasming yourself. (One cannot help but think that women had an unfair advantage here). This is the opposite pole to the whole sex-as-completion thing I’ve been looking at today – this is the ultimate in selfish sex.

So research EPIC FAIL, Jade Lee. No soup for you.

I do actually have a point here – I hate it when authors don’t research properly in romance fiction. I think it gives the genre a bad name, and contrary to all my snark about it, I am actually quite fond of romance. It has huge potential as a genre, especially given its huge readership, mostly of women. Just because your books are full of sex doesn’t mean you get a free pass on the detail. If you’re going to do something, do it right. (And I haven’t even started in on the notion of a ‘tantric sex goddess’, which most definitely does not exist. I remember vaguely being told once that the Dalai Lama said that yes, sexual yogas do exist, but no one was actualised enough to practice them, not even him. So this is all pop-tantra to begin with).

And I have only just realised how totally phallic that pen in my blog header is. Still, it’s oddly appropriate for my (mostly incoherent) ramblings in romance…

Tantra, Completion and Sexual Healing: Getting Physical by Jade Lee

“Didn’t it come straight out of the fifties phrase book? How to please your man and act like a moron in six words or less.”

– Lee. J., 2009, Getting Physical [Mills & Boon] p.172

That, right there, is one of the things that really annoys me about romance fiction – the regressive gender roles. I wrote my rant about Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge some time ago, and it really brought to a head for me what makes me so mad when reading romance fiction sometimes. Jade Lee is spot on (unintentionally, I think) when she starts talking about the fifties. Ideal happiness in romance fiction is domestic bliss – a man, a house, perhaps some kids and a dog. Take the end of Getting Physical:

“Then she laughed, the realisation hitting her broadside. She could had it all: career, family and love. Most especially love.” (Lee, p.211)

I felt like slapping Zoe, the main character, upside the head and asking her who told her she couldn’t. The reason she gives throughout is that ‘there isn’t time’. She’s working shit hospitality jobs in order to make ends meet while she pays her way through an MBA after a messy divorce. Good on her for striking out on her own after her life turned to shit and trying to make it solo, but ‘there’s not time’ really is not an excuse for avoiding relationships.

Not that I think people should have relationships for the sake of it – that came out wrong. But I’ve read a few romance novels now where the heroine always seems to think she has to choose between a man and, well, a life. Usually at the end she’s like, ‘duh, I can have them both’. Odd how the men never seem to have these problems.

Getting Physical is centred around the aforementioned Zoe and Stephen Chu, a Tantric master. Now, I don’t know where Lee did her research, but I’m pretty sure what she has in this book about tantra is totally messed up. It seems to be very much pop-tantra, completely ignoring the fact that sexual tantric practices are one tiny, tiny element of tantra and are not for seeking some kind of divine orgasm, which is what the book seems to suggest. I could write a lot more about this, but it’s not really serving my overall purpose… if I was going to write a thesis about the portrayal of tantra in romance fiction I don’t think it would be very long.

But considering this book is a book about tantra and in the light of what I was talking about before – the whole Foucault-sex-and-the-individual thing and the notion of sex as completion – I found this quote (courtesy of my good friend Mr Wikipedia) from Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Master Lama Thubten Yeshe very interesting:

“Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.”

– Yeshe, Lama Thubten, 1987, Introduction to Tantra:The Transformation of Desire [(2001, revised ed.). Boston: Wisdom Publications] p. 4

This is completely counter to the message which definitely runs through this novel, that Stephen and Zoe need to have sex to fulfil and complete each other. Of course, tantra is such a multifarious thing with so many incarnations it is possible that there are different texts somewhere. I am certainly not an expert – what I know of tantra I learned from a couple of lectures in some of my courses at uni. But it’s interesting.

Anyway, off the tantra, back to  the novel. Having read and written that stuff about the individual and sexuality this morning, I was really very interested when I got to one particular passage in the novel where Zoe actually heals Stephen through sex. Like, literally. He has all this mental pain and agony from having parents who didn’t love him and whatever blah blah blah, and through one tremendous night of sex, Zoe actually heals him of this pain. Through some mystical tantric connection/bond/thing she manages to express some kind of maternal love for him (incest ahoy!) and he finds that he doesn’t feel tha pain any more.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance novel where the hero’s pain (or heroine’s, for that matter) has been healed bam! like that through sex. Sure, it’s implied A LOT, but this was explicit. One day pain there, one day gone. The reason? Sex.

I found the way sex was encoded in this book a little troubling, to tell the truth. Stephen is a tantric master and Zoe, via a series of events, becomes his student. Sure, he’s all like ‘you’re not my student, I’m so omg important and advanced I don’t take students, only partners’, but considering he’s always bossing her around in the bedroom, she’s pretty much the pupil. (She actually calls him on this at one point. I cheered). Their sexual liaison starts off focused on ‘gaining heaven’ – again, I’m pretty sure that this is not really the goal of tantric sex, but whatever. This means that they are focused on each other’s mutual pleasure (as well as a whole bunch of other ritualistic stuff and opening energy channels and whatever – I found it pretty amusing that all Zoe had to do to guarantee an epic orgasm was what the author attractively called ‘breast circles’. Basically, this meant performing what was essentially a breast exam on herself. I laughed, I’ll admit it). And I was all over this mutual pleasure thing, and the language of partnership, even if it didn’t exactly play out that way.

But then the second time they have sex, we get this delightful set of words:

“It was hard because she had brought him to his most primal self, the animal in him that pounded inside a woman, that took what he wanted and claimed it for his own. That primal man was infinitely powerful as he branded this woman with every penetration. Zoe was his.” (Lee, p.103)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Steady on there, young one. No more mutual pleasure (though Lee does go to an effort to say that he makes sure Zoe has a good time as well). No more attaining bliss. This is all caveman throw-her-over-his-shoulder stuff. And this is presented as some sort of ideal response – that instead of wanting just to give her pleasure, he now wants to possess her as well.

This dialogue of possession has been running through literature for, like, ever – and not just romance fiction. Thing is, romance fiction is in a position to begin subverting this kind of dialogue. It’s fiction by women for women (most of the time), and as a woman, I don’t have a great desire to be possessed. I object strongly to this possession being some sort of form of higher love, while the mutual pleasure thing is somehow lesser, even though the mutual pleasure thing is certainly fairer and generally more awesome.

After a while, when Zoe follows Stephen to China, they start having ‘regular’ sex instead of (though not to the exclusion of) tantric sex. This is, in terms of story, anyway, something that makes sense –  they start having sex that’s all about them instead of attaining heaven or whatever. This is where the individual/completion thing really comes to a head. Previously, when they were having tantric sex, sex was about attaining heaven – and it was a very individual thing. The first time they have a sexual encounter, Zoe manages to go to heaven (some kind of sparkly shiny place, from the not-very-descriptive description) but Stephen does not. The second time, they both make it, but it’s not like they see each other there, and Stephen makes it to a higher level than Zoe does. This is the occasion on which she manages to heal him through the power of love or whatever, and it’s where the line really begins to blur. By the time they’re in China and are screwing for the sake of it, it’s no longer about this individual satisfaction and goal – it’s about completing oneself with the other.

The whole ‘two halves of a whole’ metaphor has been running through literature for years – and it’s compelling. Think of Heathcliff and Cathy (‘we are the same, he and I!’) or thousands of other couples. And I’m not against it, per se – though I think it’d be nice if Zoe and Stephen and assorted others could achieve some kind of individual realisation that doesn’t result in them being codependent. What I do object to is the way this is usually gendered. Getting Physical played out almost exactly the way I was talking about before. Zoe, a divorcee, has been subject only to Bad Wang and sex with Stephen is true initiation into the sexual realm for her. Stephen, on the other hand, is a tantric master (a dragon master, Lee calls him – somehow I doubt the veracity of this term, though the moment when he called his penis his ‘dragon organ’ had me on the floor in tears of laughter) who has been having good sex, for, like, ever. He is the teacher, the initiator, the high priest. She is the student, the novice, the one being initiated. He completes her through sex, fills a hole in her life. She also fills a hole in his life, but it’s one he didn’t even realise he had – he didn’t even realise he needed her Magic Hoo-Hoo until she’d healed him with it.

So it ends up being mutual – a kind of codependence. But it never starts out that way. And it’s insulting to both men and women, really. It suggests that a woman needs a man to be complete, and that a man needs to be fixed before he can love.

I’m going to keep an eye on this trend. It’s interesting.

I would, however, tell people to read this book, because it is totally freaking hilarious. The quote I posted a few hours back in only the tip of the iceberg. This book has some absolute pearlers in it. And the whole tantric phone sex scene absolutely freaking killed me. Seriously, I had cramps from the laughing.

There was one moment, though, which I thought was genuinely superlative writing. It was the beginning of a chapter – just one sentence, but it really stood out to me. It’s the night after Stephen and Zoe have first had ‘regular’ sex, and they’re waking up in bed together. The chapter begins with this line:

“Stephen woke to the sound of a page turning.”

I thought that was really good writing. Simple, but effective. Even if it can’t erase Stephen’s ‘dragon organ’.

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