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ex libris reviews

1 February 2000


Because it is cur-tailed.
Patrick O'Brian


Contents


In This Issue:
In Memoriam: Patrick O'Brian

Patrick O'Brian was taken ill on January 1st of this year, and passed away the following day. Rumor has it that he was three chapters into writing the twenty-first book of his Aubrey/Maturin series of novels. Although the first book, Master and Commander, was published in the 1970, the series didn't really become popular in this country until twenty years later. I encountered them somewhat after that, thanks to the recommendations of many people on-line. They've been my favorites since then, as anyone who has been reading this site for any length of time well knows. I wasn't grief-stricken at the news--he was 85, after all--but I am rather saddened to think that no more will Jack Aubrey pace off his morning constitutional along the windward side of the quarterdeck, or Stephen Maturin glide towards the shore in a small boat in the dead of night en route to a secret rendezvous. Oh, they live on in the 20 books O'Brian produced in the last thirty years...but while O'Brian was alive and writing, I knew I could never be sure what the pair might do next. Now the tale is ended, the journey complete. Patrick, Jack, Stephen: resquiescat in pace.

What's Waiting Down Below

I did a lot of reading this month, and so I've got a lot to write about. You'll hear about the remainder of L.E. Modesitt, Jr's Recluce series, including the most recent outing in the series, The Colors of Chaos; some more short stories by Theodore Sturgeon; a few fairy tales by George Macdonald; and books by Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, and Charlotte MacLeod, among others, including (wonder of wonders!) not one but three (!) reviews by Jane herself. But that's not the big news.

Big Changes Coming

ex libris reviews, and indeed, the whole "Will & Jane" website of which it is a part, will be moving to a new home over the next month. Whether you've subscribed to ex libris by sending me e-mail and requesting a subscription, or by using the subscription form, you'll get e-mail when the site is up in the new location; otherwise, just look in the normal place at this time next month. You'll automatically be redirected to the new address, which you can then bookmark. I won't let anybody lose track of us.

If you've not subscribed before, but would like to, just send some e-mail to us at will@wjduquette.com. We'll keep you posted.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud:
Alack and Alas

by Will Duquette

I'd hoped we'd start another book aloud this month, I really had. It didn't happen. Alas. But not to worry, James is nearly on solid food--after which time both Jane and James should have longer attention spans.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Magic Engineer
The Order War
The Death of Chaos
Fall of Angels
The Chaos Balance
The White Order
The Colors of Chaos
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr

Last month I reviewed the first two books in Modesitt's Recluce Saga; having gotten started I just kept going, especially as the most recent volume, The Colors of Chaos, appeared in paperback just this month. It was quite interesting to read them all back-to-back like this; I picked up on a lot of little details I had missed in previous readings. And that was the odd thing: I'd had the impression that I had read most of these at least twice before, but now I don't think so. I think this was the second reading for all of them.

That impression only says something about these books: they are all quite thick, and they are all quite similar. Person X (or persons X and Y) discover that he/they have incredible powers; he/they are compelled to do absolutely horrible things in defense of themselves/their people/their home/their ideals; he/they pay a horrible price for doing what they felt they need to do. Frankly, look back at the death and devastation caused by the heroes of these books, the only thing that makes it palatable is the knowledge that the other side in the conflict wasn't much better, and that the heroes paid the price for it.

The subthemes remain constant, too. The heroes of these books are generally builders of some kind: wood workers, iron workers, what have you. They are people who create order in the world by working with their hands. Some readers get quite impatient with this aspect of the books, because Modesitt goes into quite a bit of detail about it; personally, it's one of the things that keeps drawing me back.

But anyway: given that I've now read all of the extant texts in the series in a short period of time, and really figured out how they all relate, I'd like to set it down for the benefit of other readers. Along the way, I'll say a few words about each of the books. For those who are only marginally interested, suffice it to say that I liked all of them, more or less; feel free to drop down to the next review.

All of the books take place on a planet in a different universe than our own, a place where the balance between Order and Chaos is the fundamental reality. All living things partake of both. Some few people can directly manipulate the flows of Order and Chaos, to constructive or devastating effect. (I went into this in some detail last month.) Modesitt never names the planet on which are found the continents of Recluce, Candar, Hamor, et al; I find I can't discuss the books without referring to it, however, so for the sake of discussion I'm going to call it Floob. The saga of Recluce, then, is really rather poorly named. It is really the History of Floob--or, rather, the history of those crises in which the Balance was either upset or re-established. The order in which the books were written (and in which they ought to be read) is not the chronological order, though, which can make it hard to fit things together, especially if they are read at long intervals. So, in an attempt to bring Order out of Chaos, I herewith present the Ages of Floob:

Prehistory: In its prehistory, Floob was inhabited by human beings. Heaven only knows how they got their. So far as we can tell, there were no Order or Chaos masters among them.

Age of Cyador: In the future of our universe (at least, I assume that it's ours; one can never tell), there is a spacefaring culture of people called the Rationalists. A Rationalist colony ship somehow warps from our universe to that of Floob. Most of the ship's system do not work in the new universe, and the crew is forced to land on Floob, in the southern part of the continent of Candar. (I should say, I'm basing this on hints from the other books; I gather that the next two books in the series will cover this period in more detail.) They use what remains of their technology to planoform the region to their liking; then, discovering that some among them have the power to use the Chaos forces, they found the Empire of Cyador, a nation whose power is based on low technology (steam engines) and on Chaos magic. Cyador dominates that part of Floob for many centuries.

The previous inhabitants of Floob refer to the newcomers as the Demons of Light (a name the Rationalists may already have taken on themselves; see below).

Age of the Legend: A war is raging in our universe between the Rationalists and the United Federation of Faiths--known both to themselves and to the Rationalists as "the Angels". It's never made clear just what faiths are federated, or what their beef is with the Rationalists, but it seems likely that the Angels are against planoforming of planets. In Fall of Angels, an Angel ship is warped out of our universe and finds itself in orbit around Floob. As with the Rationalists centuries earlier, the Angels find that their ship systems are failing. Most of the crew are from the extremely cold planet of Sybra, and couldn't survive in a warm climate; so they take their landers down to the coldest place they can find: a high plateau in the Westhorn range on the continent of Candar. There they face a struggle for survival against the elements, but also against the locals. Under the domination of Cyador, Candar has become increasingly male-dominated. Women are not entirely powerless, but are considered the property of their husbands; they hold no explicit positions of power. All but three of the Angels, including Ryba the captain and all of the marines, are women. Naturally enough, conflict ensues as battered and oppressed women from all over Candar flock to Angels' side.

The Angels are, naturally, triumphant within their small domain, where they establish the Fortress of Westwind, and, inadvertantly, the Legend of Ryba, which says (more or less) that the Angels fell from the sky because of the sins of Men. After this point in time, women begin to become the dominant sex in many of the countries in Candar.

One of the few male Angels is Nylan, the engineer. Early on, he and a few others discover that the same ability they had to directly monitor the power nets of their spaceship somehow give them wondrous abilities on Floob; they become the first Order masters. Their abilities, especially Nylan's, are key to the initial survival of Westwind.

In The Chaos Balance, Nylan, as a male, finds it prudent to leave Westwind; with him go Ayrlyn the healer, and his infant son, Weryl. As the trio try to make a place for themselves, they find themselves brought into conflict with Cyador. The Empire has fallen greatly from its peak, but it is still mighty, and is entering a new expansionist phase. The trio also discover the Old Forest of Naclos, an oasis of Chaos and Order both, and using the knowledge they gain there about the balance, they bring about the end of Cyador's power for good and all, thus freeing the Legend to spread all over Candar. I found this book to be rather too long, and a little repetitive; I think Modesitt could have gotten to his destination in about two-thirds the space. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

The Age of Fairhaven and Recluce: The Age of the Legend ends with the fall of Westwind in The Towers of Sunset, which I reviewed last month. Fairhaven had already been founded as a home for Chaos wizards by refugees from Cyador; Order masters found a home their, as well, but were little trusted. In this book, Creslin and Megaera found the country of Recluce as a bastion of Order, and here's where the fat really goes in the fire. Cyador was a strong bastion of Chaos with no counterbalance; when the Balance righted itself, Cyador was destroyed. With the founding of Recluce the powers of Order and Chaos are balanced, and each can grow to great strength in defiance of the other.

By the time of The Magic Engineer, centuries later, Fairhaven is the dominant power in eastern Candar, and Recluce is surviving on the legends of the great powers and devastation wrought by Creslin and Megaera. Dorrin is a young man of Recluce, an Order master, who wants to build machines: steam engines in particular. Such engines are deemed to be filled with Chaos by the powers that be, notably Dorrin's father, and he is exiled to Candar, where by his very presence he and his companions irritate Fairhaven mightily. This is predominantly a book of war, in which Dorrin, while trying simply to make a life for himself in which he can build his machines, is made to fight against Fairhaven. Ultimately he is vindicated, and returns to Recluce, where his discoveries form the basis of Recluce's power for the indefinite future. It is worth noting, however, that only the growth of free Order and Chaos spurred by the separate existence of Recluce and Fairhaven allows his machines to work without becoming consumed by Chaos.

The latest books in the series, The White Order and the The Colors of Chaos, also take place at this time; refreshingly enough, they follow the career of a Chaos wizard named Cerryl from his youth until he becomes the chief wizard of Fairhaven. We see a bit of his career in The Magic Engineer; here we see all of it. It's interesting to get the opposite point of view, and consequently I enjoyed these immensely. The only downfall of The Colors of Chaos is that it follows the events of The Magic Engineer too closely, especially in the later stages of the book, which limits the suspense quite a bit. Still, I like these and recommend them.

The Age of Recluce Alone: The Order War takes place some centuries later. Justen and his brother Gunnar, Order-masters both, go to Candar to the country of Sarronyn to fight against Fairhaven. In the course of the book, which is one of the best in the series, Justen discovers that he is not a true Order-master, but a Gray Wizard: one able to use both Order and Chaos in defense of the Balance. His discoveries lead him to the Old Forest of Naclos, where he meets his true love; there's also a hint that he meets Nylan or Ayrlyn, still living in the community they founded there. Finally he is lead to take steps against Fairhaven, which is utterly destroyed. The Age of Recluce Alone follows, in which Recluce, stern and isolationist, remains strong and orderly and Candar is at the mercy of the occasional Chaos masters, no longer restrained by the the White Order of Fairhaven.

The Age of Balance: Chaos runs rampant and uncontrolled in Candar. On Recluce, a young man named Lerris, bored with Order and with the seeds of more power than any Order master has ever had, is exiled to Candar. We saw the first part of his story last month in The Magic of Recluce. The Death of Chaos completes the story. The reserves of free Chaos created by Recluce's concentration of Order have allowed the Empire of Hamor to build a vast fleet of steam ships, with which they intend to destroy Recluce. In order to save his home from destruction, Lerris must eliminate those reserves of free Chaos...and the concentrated Order that makes Recluce what it is. The history of Floob has come full circle.

So there you have it: your complete guide to the Recluce series.

Killdozer!
Thunder and Roses
By Theodore Sturgeon

These are the third and fourth volumes of Sturgeon's complete short fiction; I enjoyed them, though perhaps reading them back-to-back or even cover-to-cover was a mistake. It might have been better to spread the stories out a little more.

Oddly, many of these seem more dated than those in the previous volume, perhaps because a number of them are beginning to come to terms with the potential horrors of the nuclear age. It was fresh at the time, but now it's a twice-told tale of considerably less interest.

But be that as it may, the highlight of both collections is the novella "Killdozer!", which I first read as a teenager and of which I retained vivid memories; I was glad to renew the acquaintance. This is a sterling example of an absolutely absurd premise rendered all-too-believable by good writing and a commitment to concrete, matter-of-fact detail. A team of men and a fortune in construction equipment are landed on a small island, there to build an airfield. It doesn't matter how they do it; they have six weeks, and all the expertise and equipment they need. What they don't know is that imprisoned on this island is an ancient creature, a thing of energy fields and power. When it is freed, the thing takes possession of the very bulldozer which freed it, and the slaughter begins.

I really can't say too much for this story. The characters are well-drawn and completely believable; and, as it is based on Sturgeon's own experiences running heavy construction equipment during World War II, his descriptions of the 'dozer and the other equipment have the unassailable ring of truth.

What is History?
By Edward Hallett Carr

As most of you know by now, I'm something of a history buff; I picked up this little book during a post-Christmas book buying spree, and I would recommend it to anyone wondering what History, as a subject of investigation, is all about. I don't always agree with Carr, but he does walk a fine middle line between a variety of fallacies.

Now, history, as a matter of common sense, is simply What's Really Happened Up to Now. When we say, "Through history, such-and-such has been true," we are using the word in this sense. What I had for lunch yesterday or the mistake I made on Monday are "past history". But that answer isn't good enough for Historians, being, I suppose, too simple--it eliminates the Historian's duty not only to report on what has happened, but to make sense of it: to interpret it. On the other hand, there are those who say that all we know of what has happened is what earlier people have written about it; that all of those people were biased, imprecise, or inaccurate; that therefore we can never know what really happened (which is true); and that therefore there is no point in talking about What Really Happened. To this people, History is whatever people who call themselves Historians do. Carr wisely rejects this as well; the focus of the book, then, is not on what Historians do, but on what Historians should do. It makes for some interesting reading, if you like that sort of thing.

The Light Princess and other Fantasy Stories
By George Macdonald

Macdonald is perhaps best known for his adult fantasy novel Phantastes, a book that greatly influenced the young C.S. Lewis and ultimately lead to his return to Christianity. Most of Macdonald's tales were aimed at children, however, being fairy tales in the classic style. This book contains a number of those tales; "Fantasy Stories" they are called, but fairy tales they are, and a delight as well. The title story concerns a princess who was deprived, at birth, of all of her gravity: both in the physical sense and in the emotional sense. The tale relates her youth and upbringing, and her eventual salvation by (of course) a young prince. I rather expect I'll be reading these stories to Dave in a year or too.

The Stress of Her Regard
On Stranger Tides
By Tim Powers

Last month I read and reviewed The Anubis Gates, an old favorite of mine, and one that I've reread a number of times. That spurred me to pick of two of Power's other books, books which I bought when they first came out, read once, and never picked up again. I was curious to see how my impressions had changed.

On the first reading, I found The Stress of Her Regard very heavy going; I was lost a lot of the time, and never really figured out what was going on. Part of that is the book's fault, honestly. It is much concerned with the Romantic poets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and their circle, and the events of that day; indeed, it pretends to explain some otherwise inexplicable behavior on their parts, and (so far as I can tell) follows their lives fairly closely. Now, it has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. By following the plot of Byron's life, Powers perforce abandons himself to the arbitrary and must make the best of it.

Be that as it may, whether because I am now more widely read and knowledgeable, or simply because I am now more patient, I found the book considerably more rewarding on this reading than I did on the previous.

The premise is drawn from the book of Genesis: "There were giants in the earth in those days, and the sons of the giants wed the daughters of men." In some translations the giants are called the Nephilim, and that's what Powers calls them. The Nephilim are a race of stone, not of flesh; they are fascinated by humans, and delight in uniting themselves with them, generally with disastrous effect on the humans involved: the Nephilim, though they have little in common with the old count of Transylvania, are the source of all of our vampire legends. But there are compensations. The Nephilim think pictorially, and any human who becomes involved with them begins to see things as they do, which is to say, poetically. The Nephilim are the origin of tales of the Muses as well, bringing both destruction and creativity to the relationship. If you think about the (apparently) self-destructive lives of many poets and artists, it rather makes sense, doesn't it?

The story is told from the point of view of an outsider, Dr. Michael Crawford, who becomes ensnared by the Nephilim by accident; Crawford's story brings to the tale what little narrative logic it has, and he's almost the only character we really care about.

It's an interesting tale, and while I wouldn't recommend to everyone I found it worthwhile.

On Stranger Tides is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. I enjoyed it, but there's it's a much lesser work than The Anubis Gates or The Stress of Her Regard, which is undoubtedly why I left it on the shelf. It takes place in the Carribean in the closing days of the Buccaneers; it's a tale of pirates, of voodoo magic, of Blackbeard the Pirate, of the Fountain of Youth, of reincarnation and body-stealing and severed heads and zombies and ghost ships, and of a young man named Jack Shandy who just wants to regain the money his uncle stole from his father and marry his true love. It's a nice, gruesome little tale, and recognizably one of Tim Powers; if you liked The Anubis Gates, find a copy. It won't change your life, but it might give you a few pleasant hours.

Stardust
By Neil Gaiman

It seems to be a month for fairytales. Stardust (which I will say right up front I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend) is the tale of a young man of the English town of Wall. Wall is a long day's journey from London, but spiritually it's far more remote. Its most noticeable feature is the wall that runs along one side of the town, a wall that has only one gap, which is always guarded. For the pleasant looking fields on the other side lie in the land of Faerie, and the guards are there to keep the innocent away and the fairies in their place.

Every so many years there is a market in the field; on that day only do people pass through the gap and peruse the wares the fairies bring. The rest of the year few pass in, and none pass out. And then one day a young man sets off to find a fallen star, with which to win the love of a young lady of the town; and in the end he gets his heart's desire instead.

This is a happy, magical tale; I didn't think they wrote them like this anymore.

Pooh and the Millenium
By John Tyerman Williams

For some reason I don't know, Winnie-the-Pooh has become the favorite stalking horse of a certain kind of intellectual humor. It started with a little book called The Pooh Perplex, in which the author analyzed Milne's tales from the point of view of a dozen or so different schools of literary criticism. The point was not so much to analyze Pooh-bear, of course, but to make fun of literary critics.

The present volume, by the author of Pooh and the Philosophers, examines Milne's tales as esoteric instructions into astrology, alchemy, the tarot, the kabbalah, and every other sort of occult hoo-hah. Pooh emerges as the Great Bear, the arch Magus, the font of all occult wisdom.

As such, this book emerges as one of the most extended examples of sustained nonsense I have encountered (it is edged out by The Book of the Subgenius, mostly because it's actually readable). If you enjoyed Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum, you might give this one a read. Otherwise, I'd give it a miss.

Lies My Music Teacher Told Me
By Gerald Eskelin

Over the last several months I've been teaching myself to play the soprano recorder. I'm enjoying myself considerably, but I've been having some questions about music theory and notation that the method book isn't answering, so I went browsing for "Music for Dummies" or some such thing. This is the book I picked up, and I'm glad I did.

The author is a professional college-level music teacher and choir master; he has directed the Los Angeles Jazz Choir (which I have never heard of except in connection with this book), and has several decades of experience. He original presented the material in the book as a succession of lectures, and after considerable request presented them in this form.

The book has two parts, one on tuning and one on rhythm. I'll confess, I found a good bit of the section on tuning baffling. I grew up, as I'm sure most people do, equating the musical scale with the keys on a piano keyboard. It turns out that the notes on the keyboard aren't quite the real musical notes that the science of acoustics would predict. The baroque musicians discovered that if you tune a keyboard instrument to a single key, say C Major, that the keyboard will only play in tone in that key. But if you "temper" the keyboard by tuning it just right, then it's not quite perfect in any key, but it's never worse than "not quite perfect" in any key. J.S. Bach was so thrilled with this discovery that he wrote a massive work entitled The Well-Tempered Clavier, which contains one piece in each of the major and minor keys.

So normal piano tuning is "not quite perfect". Does it matter? Most experts would say no, because the human ear is not very good at distinguishing pitch. Very few people can tell the difference between a note that's tuned acoustically and one that's tempered. Now Eskelin agrees with this--but he also points out that the human ear is excellent at distinguishing intervals, i.e., harmonies. Most people can be trained to hear a perfect fifth, or a major chord, and recognize when the notes are just right and when they are a little off. And piano notes are always a little off. Eskelin is a choir-master, however, and in his experience choirs can be taught to sing the intervals perfectly--and when they do, they know it. (My wife, who did considerable choral singing in school, tells me this is true.) So the rest of the section on tuning is really all about how singers can sing intervals and chords "just right". With my minimal background in music, I found it heavy going, and as a recorder player, which is tempered-tuned, I found it intriguing but somewhat irrelevant.

But it was the second half of the book, on musical rhythm, that I found most valuable. For the first time I got a clear explanation of what time signatures really mean, and how rhythm and meter are related, and just what syncopation is. It simply develops that there are three ways the composer can create a sense of rhythm in a piece, one of which is the time signature; the other two involve the nature of the melody and the pattern of note durations. If these three methods disagree about where the beats are, the music is syncopated; otherwise not. I learned quite a bit from this part of the book, and I intend to re-read it several times in the coming year, the better to absorb its contents.

The Balloon Man
By Charlotte MacLeod

MacLeod used to be one of my favorite mystery authors; alas, the quality of her work has suffered in recent years, and the last couple of outings in her two major series have been distinctly subpar. This one, the latest Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn mystery, is only partially an exception. As a story, it is somewhat more engaging than the last few; as a mystery, it is decidedly lacking. Still, I enjoyed it, mostly, while recognizing its flaws, which is more than I can say for its immediate predecessor.

Sadly, there may be a real reason for MacLeod's decline in recent years; one of my correspondents tells me that MacLeod has entered a nursing home, and that The Balloon Man is likely her last book. If so, it's a fitting end for the Kelling/Bittersohn series, and worth picking up for that reason alone.


Jane's Recent Reading:
Love, Food, and Money

by Jane Duquette

Jane joins us again this month with not one but three reviews of her own! -- Will Duquette

Tell Me No Lies
By Elizabeth Lowell

This contemporary romance is about art smuggling, art fraud, and recent Chinese politics. I don't know if it is or ever was accurate regarding the politics or art, but it is a good story with strong characters. The book is a quest to find a piece of art that may have been stolen from Mount Li in China. The book isn't a timeless classic, but I recommend it if you enjoy intrigue with your romance.

Roasting: A Simple Art
By Barbara Kafka

All this cold weather has me longing for wonderful food from the kitchen. In that vein I have been enjoying recipes from this excellent book. My mother has always claimed that if you find three good recipes in a cookbook, you have gotten your money's worth; I certainly have, as I have not had a recipe fail from this book. There are some I am not interested in trying, but those I have tried I have found easy and delicious. I highly recommend the roast chicken parts and the pork loin. I also tried the roast turkey for Thanksgiving; it was raved over. I will admit that I have not tried her recipes for using leftovers, as we rarely have any and those we do have are eaten before they can become ingredients in another recipe.

One caveat: roasting involves cooking at temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Your oven must be clean before you start or you will find out how well your fire alarms work. It was rather embarassing.

The Millionaire Next Door
By Thomas Stanley and William Danko

Before Christmas, in despair over ever having an inviting livingroom that could be enjoyed by guests and toddlers I hired a decorator for ideas and help. She is a fascinating woman; she was raised in Beverly Hills always expecting that she would never have to work for a living. Now, lo these many years later, that has turned out not to be true. She managed to work miracles in the living room and all in the family are happy with the result, but she got me thinking about what it really means to be wealthy. Hence, I re-read this month's finance book. The Millionaire Next Door is based upon marketing studies the authors did on the habits of people who have acquired large net worths. Surprisingly, these high net-worth individuals are not the people you'd expect them to be. If money management is involved in your New Year's Resolutions, this might make interesting reading for you. Some of the charts and theory get tiresome, but most of the examples are fascinating. It is an easy book to read, and it's easy to skip the parts that get too technical and still get the important ideas from the examples.


Children's Books

Moosetache
Written by Margie Palatini and illustrated by Henry Cole

My sister got us this; she actually gave it to Jane rather than to either of the boys, for reasons which I didn't hear at the time, and which I'm at a loss to figure out. But no matter.

Moosetache is the tale of a moose with a problem: he has a big, bushy, unmanageable mustache. He tries everything you can think of, and many things you can't, to tame his "moostache", but nothing works. Every grand scheme has its tragic flaw. And then...and then...happiness! Bliss! He meets a lady moose with fly-away hair and a workable solution! His moostache is tamed, his heart is lost, and they live happily ever after.

This is a very silly book, but it's all in good fun, and the pictures are outstanding.


Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 February 2000
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