Issue #71 (April 15, 1999)
Issue #71 (April 15, 1999)
We'll Get There, Eventually:
I've continued to read series romances recently as though they were pieces of popcorn in a jumbo-sized tub. As someone who was formerly a snob about the series romance, this comes as quite a surprise. It also has me thinking - now that I've gotten into the groove of these short and intense reads, will I lack the attention span to go back to longer romances? I'm not really worried about that, but I have enjoyed being able to read a book in one sitting, of finishing a few books in a few days rather than a few weeks due to my schedule.
Reading these series romances started me thinking about a great many things. First is that they are terrific for those of us who don't like hero/heroine separations of any length. With the length constraints in these books, it's pretty nearly hero and heroine together for the entire read.
I've also noticed that one gripe I used to have against contemporary romance was that it wasn't enough removed from my reality to give me that sense of fantasy I so crave in a romance. After having gobbled up a dozen or so series romances in recent weeks, I can honestly say that none of them featured plot lines that were likely to occur in my actual life.
I've now read four books by Donna Kauffman, whose Three Musketeers: Surrender the Dark I mentioned in the last issue of this column has stayed in my mind for more than two weeks now. As has Duncan's Bride by Linda Howard, for that matter. Has that ever happened to you, that you just cannot get a book out of your head? But, getting back to Donna Kauffman's series romances, I noticed several things after reading the four I read, and wanted to open up discussion on them.
First of all, three of the four featured heroines who are not beautiful, although they become more and more beautiful to their heroes, who found them increasingly potent sexually. We haven't talked about beauty in romance in this column since 1996, although author Rebecca Sinclair did a Write Byte on the topic. (And, we also maintain a Special Title Listing for Less Than Beautiful Lead Characters.) But a recent discussion on the Reviews Message Forum for AAR on just this topic got me thinking. . . .
I know this sounds superficial, but in general, I've preferred to read romances featuring beautiful people. Not always, but generally. For some reason, in my mind, beauty and fantasy fit together. Of course, that was my preference when I preferred to read historical romance, which is long ago and far away. Now that I'm into this contemporary mode, for some reason, reading about more average looking characters seems to be okay. At least for the heroines. So, for me, the two are tied together - when I read an historical, the fantasy about castles and manors, lords and ladies, knights and damsels, and beauty all come together as part of a package.
But when it comes to contemporaries, which, even though don't resemble my life, are not "long ago and far away," they are contemporary. Some element of the fantasy is missing. When I read an historical, I don't feel I identify with the heroines, but in a contemporary, to some extent I think I do - if she's not me, at least she's someone I might know. And so it isn't necessary to package together her beauty to create that fantasy. Of course, I still want the hero to be handsome, if not in fact, than to the heroine.
While we're talking about heroes, I've noticed something else because of those four Donna Kauffman titles (Surrender the Dark, Wild Rain, Tango in Paradise, and Light My Fire) - I enjoy a different kind of hero in contemporary romance than I do in many historicals. Surrender the Dark and Wild Rain, which Donna's editor refers to her "two people in a closet" book, both feature very dangerous heroes, men who are closed off and can be very "not nice." (Since our earlier discussions on heroic archetypes, I can't bring myself to use the term "alpha" any more) The other two featured heroes who were, at least with the heroines, very nurturing and kind. They reminded me of Caine from Nora Roberts' MacGregor series - a little too nice and nurturing to be true. These were men who seemed more in touch with their emotions than any woman, let alone any man.
When I interviewed Nora back in 1997, I asked her about that. At that time she responded, "Aren't most romance heroes, or heroes in fiction of any kind, generally superior to real men? Same goes for heroines and real women. They are idealized. That's what makes them heroes. As for Caine, I couldn't possibly convince you one way or the other. He was written as he came to me, layer by layer. Certainly he had a leg up on understanding himself and his own feelings on some other characters simply because of his upbringing and family. When you come from a family who expresses their feelings, you generally recognize your own."
When I mentioned to Donna that, for a reader who generally prefers "nicer" heroes than "meaner" ones, that I'd been loving her "meaner" ones, she said, "I tend to lean more towards the alpha heroes in my own reading, but not the ones that go over the line (my personal line anyway.) However, as a writer, staying with one "type" of hero, despite the endless possibilities, is creatively stifling. I like to explore all different types. And my readers respond to various elements in my stories as well, so I try and mix it up a bit."
On the question of heroines, Donna had this to say about beauty:
"I've always had a bit of trouble with the 'perfect woman' syndrome. If I do a gorgeous heroine, it will likely be a specific plot point. (ie: men can't take her seriously because they can't get past the face, etc.) It would definitely have to be integral to the plot. Otherwise, I really enjoy the fantasy that any of us normal women can attract say. . .Mel Gibson. And why not write plain heroes? Hey, it's my fantasy!"
I'd like to have you eavesdrop on our reviews message forum about beautiful heroines. Julene started this entire discussion by writing, "Are there other readers out there who are sick of reading about Miss Beautiful? Time after time I've started a book and discovered the heroine is the most beautiful, exquisite, angelic creature the hero has ever seen and he falls into instant lust at first sight. Why don't more authors write about real women? A woman who has a little meat on her bones and isn't a size 3 or 5, or a woman who ranges from either plain to pretty but there's just something about her that the hero finds absolutely irresistible. Pamela Morsi writes about believable woman. In her book Courting Miss Hattie, the heroine was slightly buck-toothed and had been nicknamed Horse-faced Hattie when she was younger. I have set aside many books because the woman is just too perfect for my tastes. I guess you could say I prefer a hero who sees beneath the surface to the gem buried inside. I hope some authors will take this seriously."
Nancy Beth agrees with Julene. She noted that, "even if the heroine is initially depicted as less than beautiful, it turns out that it's usually just her perception of herself that is less than a 10? Everyone else seems to overlook her 'disfigurement' or it turns out it's just not fat, it's voluptuous. That actually makes me madder than starting off with perfection." And don't even mention heroines who have plastic surgery to Nancy Beth - she hates that - whereas Sharon enjoys the ugly duckling who is transformed into the beautiful swan scenario.
Author Stef Ann Holm indicated that it's harder to get a less than pretty heroine accepted by publishers and recalled her struggle over the plump heroine in Forget Me Not. She wrote, "In the end, I had to compromise and make her lose weight by the last chapter. It wasn't something she consciously did. She was hired on as a chuckwagon cook and she didn't know how to cook. I don't know why I had to make her lose the weight. And perhaps things have changed since I wrote that book. As to beautiful heroines . . . I'm trying to think if I've ever consciously made one so beautiful the hero just had to have her. I don't believe so. They are simply women the hero finds attractive." (Stef Ann added that a book she has coming out in early 2000 features a heroine made beautiful for plot purposes, a heroine so beautiful "she wants somebody to tell her she's smart too, which she is".)
Stef's comments, of course, go to character, which is what readers are really interested in. Our own Ellen Micheletti said, "For me, character is all important. One of my most despised characters in a novel is Ronnie from Karen Robards The Senator's Wife. She is beautiful. She is also a selfish, snobbish little twit. One of my most favorite characters is Roxanne Drew from Carla Kelly's Mrs. Drew Plays her Hand. She is beautiful. She is also, brave, kind, loving and a devoted mother. Two beautiful women, two very different characters."
To which Julene, who started this discussion, said:
"If the heroine has character to go along with her looks, I more or less always enjoy the book. but I have been put off from the first chapter several times when I encounter this exquisite, goddess-like woman who is somehow surreal. of course, the hero is bowled over by her looks right away and will possess her at all costs. I know that appearance is what attracts us first, but looks don't always hold up. and that's where character will tell - turning a somewhat ordinary looking woman into someone precious and beautiful or revealing the ugly core of a selfish, hateful beautiful outer shell."
(To access our listing of heroes and heroines who don't fit the norms of beauty, please click here.)
Those Handsome Heroes:
While most of the discussion centered on beautiful heroines, our own Lori-Anne wondered about handsome heroes. She asked, "What about the men? Do you ever get tired of reading about men who are just completely drop-dead handsome? I tend to be more attracted to the heroes that have more character to their appeal than GQ model handsomeness."
Sharon is like me on this topic, and like Donna Kauffman as well in preferring "gorgeous, hunk heroes." True, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many a hero I've fallen in love is scarred or dresses like a nerd, but for my fantasy to work, the hero must be handsome.
Julene, however, goes back to the character issue. Handsome heroes are nice, but give her a hero with a "strong, manly edge that puts the heroine on red alert." She adores a hero "to really go after his woman, too, so that the poor thing doesn't stand a chance against those smoldering eyes or the intense air surrounding him. . . ." Is it getting warm in here?
I too adore a romance where the hero pursues the heroine throughout, but what especially struck me about Julene's comment was that "strong, manly edge." This goes back to the two heroes from Surrender the Dark and Wild Rain. Both men are strong, intense, potent, sexual animals. Though both are "good" in terms of the work they do, they are dangerous and closed off from their emotions. Unlike the Garwood and Quick heroes who are seen as dangerous to all but the heroines, these heroes project their aura to everyone, including their heroines. Niceness doesn't come easy to these guys, and yet I fell in love with them.
I think perhaps I'm having an inverse reaction to danger than I did to beauty. While I prefer beautiful heroines in historicals, it's perfectly fine to have an average heroine in a contemporary romance. And while I prefer less of an edge in my historical heroes, I think I prefer a more dangerous contemporary hero. Probably because that is counter to my actual life experience. My own husband is truly one of the "good guys."
(To access our listing of heroes and heroines who don't fit the norms of beauty, please click here.)
Those Groveling Heroes:
For many readers, a dark and dangerous and edgy hero brought to his knees by the power of love is a powerful fantasy. Nancy Beth enjoys a good "heroic grovel" when a difficult hero gets his comeuppance. In particular, she enjoys Judith McNaught depictions of male despair:
"Remember Jason talking to his leopard statue in the dark from Once & Always and Something Wonderful's Jordan Townsende weeping, 'Oh, Alex, how will I go on living without you? Take me with you, I want to go with you...' as Alexandra lay dying from a gunshot wound sustained while saving Jordan's life.)
Our own Blythe Barnhill, who noted that groveling heroines are much rarer in romances, added that one of the reasons she so disliked Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame & the Flower was because "Brandon never apologized for raping Heather. On the other hand, there is Clay in Whitney, My Love (by Judith McNaught), who was almost as big a jerk as Brandon, but at least he felt really sorry and ended the book on his knees asking for forgiveness. . . There is something to be said for a good grovel. And when the hero is wrong, I want him to grovel big time."
While I enjoy a good groveling scene, I didn't accept Clay's apology and so didn't enjoy Whitney. My own favorite by Judith McNaught is A Kingdom of Dreams, which actually features a heroine groveling. This particular scene is one of the most touching I've ever read - I need a packet of tissues whenever I read it. Candy also loves this scene of a heroine's comeuppance:
"The heroine in A Kingdom of Dreams grovels nicely at the end of the book (this is after stabbing the hero, accidentally killing his horse, causing him an untold number injuries, both physical and emotional...). I thought it was very effective and touching because the heroine had been a brat. However, heroine grovels are much rarer than hero grovels, I think, because as women, we would probably empathize more with the heroine, and having to eat humble pie would be more galling than watching the hero eat humble pie. Of course, it's perfectly possible that women are always right. And even when we're wrong, we're right. Right?"
There are some books where the groveling is sublime. In others, the groveling is enough in quantity, but it's just too late. In still others, it's a matter of too little, too late. Nancy Beth, for example, wrote of Stephanie Mittman's The Marriage Bed that "if ever a man deserved to spend some time on his knees, it was that man. He seemed to think it was funny, if memory serves, that the heroine was avoiding him. He had a 'she'll get over it attitude' that really grated on me. Another example, although not so strong, is the newscaster husband from Katherine Stone's Love Songs. He had a long affair, public, ignored his daughter for 10 years...hmph!"
Candy wrote, "I don't mind if a hero treats a heroine like crap; my only condition is that he has feel like crap for treating her like crap. My all-time favorite hero is Devon from The Windflower (by Laura London), and I love him so much despite the way he abused Merry because he really, really feels bad about the way he treated her in the pirate ship. Heroes who don't grovel after making asses of themselves are not worth reading, IMHO. That's why I can't stand some of the old-time romances where the hero acts like a complete jerk, physically and verbally abuses the heroine, and at the end, the heroine suddenly realizes how much she loves him and what a brat she's been and how wonderful the hero is, abusive tendencies and all... and basically I just want to the heroine to dump the insensitive idiot's ass. Groveling is the only way to go when there's an alpha or hyper-alpha hero; otherwise, I avoid those books like the plague. Maybe it's perverse of me, but I really like it when the hero feels like dying or hurting himself because he has realized what an ass he's been to the heroine. Again, Devon from The Windflower is a perfect example."
Contrasting these views is one held by Mags, who wrote that a groveling man, "whether in fiction or fact would leave me stone cold. If a man went down on his knees to apologize I'm be tempted to either laugh in his face or push him over"
Mags' comment reminded me some of Catherine Coulters' heroes who are unapologetic and rarely grovel (and I've still loved some of them!). Which further reminded me of something Jo Beverley said in an earlier column. She asked, "Why this urge to bring a man to his knees? Now, if people said, 'when a good woman shows him she's his equal in all the ways that count,' I'd be with you. Or even, 'when a good woman knocks some sense into his head.' Or even, 'when a good woman takes him in hand and looks after him'. "
Nancy Beth, however, makes the point that groveling doesn't literally have to mean having the hero begging on his knees for forgiveness. She talked about the "horrendous, overpowering feelings of desolation at the possibility of losing her love, respect, life, etc. Like, when all through the novel we hear how the hero has control of his emotions, never cries, etc., and then he weeps when faced with his own guilt, or the loss of her. You know what I mean?"
I know precisely what Nancy Beth meant; the book that comes immediately to mind is Bewitching by Jill Barnett. Duncan's Bride by Linda Howard also comes to mind. Duncan's realization is not nearly as intense as Alec from Bewitching's is, but the feeling of desolation is definitely there. And it's that desolation, that despair, the knowledge that the hero is hurting, that makes these scenes so powerful. These scenes do not humiliate the hero, which is what he's always been afraid of, but redeem him through the power of love.
Tall, Dark, and Blond? How Much Can You Tell About a Hero from His Hair:
On the AAR listserv not too long ago, the topic of hair color came up. I noted that in Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women, Jayne Ann Krentz wrote that dark-haired heroes were dangerous and blond heroes were golden boys. I had always assumed this was to some extent, true, and since the type of man I'm attracted to in real life is tall and dark, I'd often steer clear of romances featuring blond heroes.
Apparently, however, the assumption of dark-haired heroes being darker characters than light-haired heroes is no longer accurate. Reader Robin Nixon Uncapher decided to explore this for us. Here's what she discovered:
In the early seventies, before the advent of Rosemary Rogers' Sweet
Savage Love, the heroines in gothic suspense novels always
had dark hair. I remember reading that because most American women
were brunettes, publishers feared that female readers would be jealous of a
So much for Nancy Drew.
Nowadays heroines come in all hair colors (though red seems out of proportion to its appearance in nature). But what about heroes? Not long ago Laurie asked those of us on the AAR Listservto address the idea whether blonde heroes in romance novels are "golden boys" while dark-haired heroes are "tortured." This thought was expressed in Jayne Ann Krentz's Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance (1992).
Laurie wrote "Is this not the case for most authors today? I always assumed it was, and for that reason, sometimes pass by a book when the cover shows a blond man (could also be that I don't go for blondes myself)"
I understand the assumption because, despite my ever present veneration for Robert Redford, I also prefer dark-haired men. Generally I've assumed that they make the most interesting (tortured) heroes.
But I have recently discovered that my assumptions are skewed and I will tell you just how much. I was sure that the hero of The Last Rogue (a favorite of mine) was blonde, even though the cover showed a brown-haired man. I was so convinced (without checking back of course) that as I was working on this article, I wrote a note to Deborah Simmons asking her to comment on this relationship between hair color and personality. Imagine my chagrin when Deborah wrote back to tell me that she had only written two blonde heroes, neither of which was the one in The Last Rogue! How embarrassing. Apparently I had unconsciously assigned a hair color, in spite of what the author had written!
Now, before I go too much further I should give you my personal definition of tortured, because, it turns out that this is something about which knowledgeable romance readers disagree.
Here is my perspective. If you read many historicals you will be hard pressed to find a hero without a terrible hurt in his past. They all seem to have at least one, but I don't think that they are all tortured. To this reader, "tortured" reflects the way the hero deals with the problem. A tortured hero tortures himself. He may be wracked with guilt. He may be bitter or angry. To me, Michael in Mary Jo Putney's Shattered Rainbows was tortured because he had breached his own code of ethics by falling in love with a married woman. A hero I see as not tortured, is one who is mentally healthy, often in spite of the awful things that have happened to him. Alisdair in Karen Ranney's, A Promise of Love has lost his everything to the British. Not only is most of his family dead and starving but he has been forced to abandon his life as a physician to take care of his clan. Nevertheless Alisdair is not tortured. This is a good thing because the heroine of A Promise to Love is deeply shattered and needs someone who can give her unlimited amounts of understanding.
The question of whether a blonde hero is a golden boy is more controversial than I thought. Sax in Jo Beverley's Forbidden Magic is gentle and kind. I thought of him as relatively untortured with some very hard things in his past. Jo Beverley has mentioned being partial to blonde men, and that her preference could be cultural. She commented "I think I have six blond heroes out of twenty. . . I don't do heavily tortured heroes - at least, not the dark and dangerous sort - but my blondes all had challenges to face! Part of being a romance hero, after all."
Jo disagreed with me about Sax being a golden boy though. She wrote: "I feel I have to defend Sax from Forbidden Magic here! From 10 till 21 he lived a very un-self-indulgent life. A tortured one. The past few years before the book have been the ones in which he created a new life for himself, which is never easy, and one that gave a great deal to other people as well as being pleasant for him. He did it by blocking off what he'd suffered, and eventually he had to deal with it." Jo went on to say later, "He's not someone to dwell in the past, or to pour out his pain on to others."
Sax to me seems relatively untortured for a historical hero. By contrast however, the blonde Lorgin in Dara Joy's Knight of a Trillion Stars is really not tortured at all. I think Dara Joy can create a healthy secure man without scars because Lorgin is an alien and he has enough to deal with trying to establish a relationship with an earthling!
When I look back at my recent reads it turns out that I can't see a correlation between hair color and whether the hero (in my subjective opinion) is tortured. Here is a summary:
Needless to say this is an unscientific sampling. Have times changed since DMAW was published?
Despite a number of "tortured" blonde heroes, it does seem to follow that when a hero is not only tortured but also very dangerous (sort of super alpha) he is almost always dark. Peregrine in Mary Jo Putney's Silk & Shadows and the hero of Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels are frightening to the characters who meet them, and it's hard to imagine either of them as blonde.
Nevertheless, dangerous blonde heroes do exist. Robin in Mary Jo Putney's Angel Rogue, has the kind of compelling sexual allure that I associate with the really super alpha heroes. Robin is not a super alpha but he is a brilliant spy whose small stature and angelic good looks mask cunning and ability. Lucien, Robin's cousin, and the hero in Putney's Dancing on the Wind is another unusually dangerous blonde hero.
Because she writes unusual blonde heroes I asked Mary Jo Putney to comment on the correlation between hair color and character. She wrote:
"There are quite a lot of blondes in England, so I've had a lot of blond heroes, though not all of them of them were particularly dark.
Another blonde favorite of mine is Brent from Adele Ashworth's My Darling Caroline. Brent is tortured, not super alpha and not beta. I asked Adele to comment on how she approaches the issue of assigning hair color for her heroes. Adele took a very different tact and I found her ideas thought provoking. Here is what she said:
"I think many authors, myself included, strive to create heroes who will compliment our heroines in both manner and looks. It's a striving for contrast instead of the obvious stereotyping we've all seen the unattractive, pale redhead (aren't these mostly the bad guys) the dark, handsome, tortured brooder; the average-looking, run-of-the-mill brunette (usually someone's brother or best friend); the gorgeous, charming, fun-loving blonde. In My Darling Caroline, I made the hero blonde because Caroline was dark. It had nothing to do with his brooding personality, which many would consider characteristic of a dark-haired hero. In my next book, Stolen Charms, the hero has dark hair. He would, by all accounts, be considered a charmer, a "golden boy" in personality, but I made him dark because the heroine is fair.
Perhaps it also follows that many creators of blonde heroes simply prefer blonde men. Danelle Harmon, whose Charles in The Beloved One was not alpha, but very tortured, wrote, "I've always gone for the more "English" look. I like paler tones. Hey, I married a blond. Hey, he's English. And if anyone shuns the attractiveness of blondes, I would ask them to get a bowl of popcorn and curl up with the (blond) Anthony Andrews as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and spend an afternoon drooling over him and his two equally blond League-sters, Dewhurst and Ffoulkes." Danelle signed her message, "Danelle, champion of blonde men," so we know she's serious.
In a totally different camp is Karen Ranney, whose hero in Upon a Wicked Time defies easy categorization. Karen's stories are very dramatic with characters, both heroes and heroines who are sometimes emotionally stretched to their limits. When I asked Karen to address the question of hero hair color, she wrote, "I confess to writing what attracts me. I don't like blondes. Whenever I read about a blond-haired hero in a book, which I confess is rare, I mentally make him either a brunette or with black hair. If I create a villain, he is more likely to have light hair than dark. Maybe I was frightened as a youngster by a blond-haired man. It's the darndest thing."
So what do you think? We'd like to hear your views.
Do you make assumptions about the hero based on his hair color? Do you think this has changed over the years?
Do you prefer tall dark and handsome or fair-haired heroes? What about red hair? A number of readers in the discussion indicated that a red-haired hero could be controversial.
I think the move away from stereotypes overall is a good thing. There will always be a place in my heart for the large brooding dangerous alpha hero with his thatch of unruly dark hair but I'm also happy to see the complexity of many of the heroes in romance novels. These heroes can't be easily defined and the while the color of their hair gives me a better picture of them, it does not reflect character the way it once did.
Robin's piece on hair color brought home to me once again how difficult it is to talk about types of characters without universal definitions. For instance, when we started the Tortured Heroes Special Title Listing, the definition was similar to the one Robin used and has to do with how the hero deals with his problems. A tortured hero when we began that list was a hero who acted out his torment upon others, most often and most likely the heroine. For others, a tortured hero, however, is simply a hero who has been through the ringer. Danelle Harmon has promised to explore this further for us; writing this reminds me I need to remind her about it!
Just as I've had problems in this column knowing what to call certain types of characters because the old definitions no longer fit, it appears I can no longer count on light versus dark hair in categorizing characters. Karen Ranney prefers dark-haired heroes in real life and so writes them in her romances. Adele Ashworth takes the hero and heroine as a set and writes accordingly. Jo Beverley prefers blondes and so often writes them. And so, another assumption bites the dust.
About the only assumption that remains valid these days is that we all have different tastes and inclinations and that romance novels are varied enough to give us all what we want. Happy reading!
Let's Recap before Posting to the Message Board:
It's nearly time to post to the message board again, but first, let's recap all the topics presented; this column really did have some themes running throughout!
Does your romance appetite change from time to time from historicals to contemporaries to series to Regency Romances, then back again? Is it hard to go from reading Regency Romances (not historicals set in the regency) and series romance to longer romances?
Does what you look for in character types change depending on whether you're reading an historical romance, a series romance, a contemporary romance (or any sub-genre)? What do you think about my preference for beautiful heroines in historicals but not necessarily in contemporary romances? And for my current enjoyment of harder heroes in contemporaries when I don't generally prefer them in historicals? Does the time-frame of a romance contribute to this, do you think? What are your preferences in terms of beauty and "darkness" in historicals and contemporaries? What about handsome heroes? Sure, character is important, but don't we (mostly) want our heroes to be handsome?
What about those groveling heroes? And the occasional groveling heroine? Do you like groveling or does it strike you as humiliating, or, worse, wimpy? If a hero is hard to the core, do we really want him to turn into mush at the end when he realizes what he may lose? Or, is that exactly what we want?
Does the old maxim of dark characters and dark hair still stand? When you pick up a romance, are you more attracted to dark-haired heroes or light-haired heroes? Is it because of a personal preference or because most dark heroes you've read have dark hair? Is this changing?
Finally, you might have been able to tell that writing this column without using the "alpha" term was difficult for me. Yes, Robin and some of the others quoted used it, but now that I know there is no single definition for it, I try not to use it. Unfortunately, that leaves me with terms like "dark" and "tortured," and even "tortured" appears to be different for readers. What's your definition of tortured?
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