Sandra Gulland

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Notes on (surviving) the writing life

Welcome to my blog on writing and the writing life. I also blog on research subjects at Baroque Explorations.

For either one, if you subscribe (see lower left), you will be notified whenever there is a new post. I promise that you won’t be swamped with emails.

Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question: I love to read them.

Quill copy

Watercolour therapy


Yesterday, I went to a watercolour class. Before heading out, I searched my computer for for the address, but up popped a biographical essay I wrote many years ago: “Watercolors.”

It’s about my teen years, and about my mother, but most of all it’s about creativity and renewal. I wrote it for an anthology edited by my friend Victoria Zackheim: The Face in the Mirror; Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age. It’s a biographical essay, as close as I’ve ever come to a memoir, and rereading it again brought tears. I’m thinking I might publish it as a chapbook, sub-titling it “An exceedingly short memoir of a rather long life.”

How à-propos that this essay should have reappeared just now, for I’ve been in the betwixt and between fog that it addresses—a fog I go into after a manuscript is sent out and before a new draft or novel is begun. In the essay, watercolours are seen as key to reviving creative doldrums.

Ah ha. 

(I’m reminded of a chapbook by Henry Miller I treasure: To Paint is to Love Again.


It’s a collector’s item now, a bit expensive, but you can hear him reading from it on YouTube.)

The class, taught by Canadian artist Donna Dickson, was excellent: tools and techniques and, for me, total absorption for a good three hours. Writing is such a mental, even abstract art, it’s refreshing to engage with the physical world in this way.

Above is a snapshot of a watercolour I painted this summer. It wouldn’t be honest  to claim that it’s only the process that matters, but in truth it really is about process … and right now my process is learning techniques and how to use the tools.

That said, what I love most about the visual arts is that they open me up to seeing the world in a new way.

Here is the painting I did for Donna Dickson‘s class. She’s an excellent teacher. Watercolours are such a pleasure!


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December 18, 2014 @ 9:18 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Inside out: not unlike the writing process

I adore this trailer for the new Disney movie Inside Out:

It reminds me of all the voices in my head when writing a scene:

  • Why would she do that?
  • What are the others thinking?
  • Someone, do something!!!

I’m excited this morning about an idea for the covers of the INK non-fiction titles I’m planning. Designer Kris Waldherr and I have had several back-‘n-forths. The new idea is to have them look a little like old chap-books with marbled papers.

Looking at marbled papers just about put me into an aesthetic swoon. Google “marbled pages” for yourself and you will see:

marbled pages

If you want to see more of these, go to my Pinterest board, where I’m collecting ideas.

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December 13, 2014 @ 12:51 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Online amusements: Josephine—the sorrowful wife?—and Napoleon’s Tweets


I’ve recently started using the “Never miss a thing online” Mention app. Just what I don’t need—right?—but being a Social Media Nerd, and terminally curious, I thought I’d give it a try. For starters I searched my name (of course), as well as mentions of Hortense and Napoleon.

It has turned up some surprising links.

This Turkish site, for one, on the theme of “the sorrowful wife.” In the book section, they display four titles:

The Sorrowful Wife

Yep, there’s sorrowful Jo right beside a novel by Goethe. My smile for the day.

Do you belong to Book Movement? (If not, it’s free.) It’s great site for book clubs and readers generally. Last spring, M.J. Rose and I did a special for their newsletter on our books — her’s, The Collector of Dying Breaths, and mine, The Shadow Queen — which are remarkably similar in a number of ways. It’s online again: you can read it here.

Grumpy Nap

As for Hortense, her step-father Napoleon completely overshadows her. As he does. She has not a single mention, yet he has 5571! Clearly, he is the master of the Tweetable quote.

  • “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”
  • “The best cure for the body is a quiet mind.” (Yet his mind was far from quiet.)
  •  “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

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December 9, 2014 @ 10:19 am3 comments already! | Leave a Comment

That naughty Saint Nick: trouble—and romance?—in toyland


Author and screenwriter Robin Maxwell recently wrote to me about, among other things, that mischievous Saint Nick.  While she and her long-time collaborator Billie Morton were researching the history of Santa for their recently-published Middle Grade novel Trouble in Toyland, they learned that in Renaissance England the idea of a jolly, gift-bringing immortal of the Yuletide season called “Father Christmas” came into existence during the reign of Henry VIII. This inspired them to write “Lady Karola and the Christmas Stranger,” a Renaissance romance short story (with a touch of fantasy) that takes place on Christmas Eve at the court of Elizabeth I, when one of the queen’s waiting ladies first lays eyes on a mysterious stranger.

Ho ho ho!

(See my own blog post on that wild and crazy guy: Would you want this man sneaking down your chimney?)

Family life

Of all the books I’ve recently acquired, the one that has most charmingly hooked me is Family Life by Akhil Sharma. If you’ve read about this memoir, you may be scared off—the author’s brother is tragically paralyzed in a swimming accident—but believe me: it’s gentle and warm and humorous. Beautifully written. I highly recommend it.


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December 8, 2014 @ 6:35 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Dear Santa: the drool-worthy books I lust for (and you will too)


(Yes, this is me, once-upon-a-time.)

I thought I’d mention the books I swoon over—books you might want to consider buying for yourself, or giving to a very special someone.

Lost in Translation

The first book on this list is Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World. The amazing Marie Popova mentioned it on her blog——and I was immediately captured. Why?

Well, judge for yourself. This is just one example:


 TSUNDOKU: a Japanese noun for leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.

 Ha! Say no more! I need this book—to pile on all the others.

The Book of Miracles

Another book that sets the imagination afire is Taschen‘s The Book of Miracles.

The illustrations are breathtaking. Click here for a slideshow. Some examples:

Untitled 2 Untitled Untitled3

At one point this fall, I decided that I really must have a complete set of Penguin’s Dropped Cap series—until I remembered that my publicly-announced goal was to begin culling books. ;-(

Even so, I might just give in. These books are luscious and beautifully crafted; a complete set would be something to behold. They are, also, classics well worthy of such care. The cover fabric is velvety: just holding one of these books is a sensual treat. Here are only a few …


I look forward to seeing a photo of them on your shelves.

My last recommendation is a series I know well, for I own (and devoured) two of them. These are the lavishly illustrated and annotated editions of Jane Austens‘ work from Harvard University Press:


I have had the very great pleasure of reading the Pride & Prejudice  and Persuasion editions. Simply superb.

And, as if this isn’t enough to tempt you, there are many, many “best of” lists coming out now. Here are a few lists I found interesting:

The Best Books of 2014, from the Huffington Post

The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2014, by BuzzFeed Books

The best fiction of 2014, from The Guardian

The Globe 100: The best books of 2014

The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2014 This is an unusual list: extremely interesting.

Station Eleven

Two books I’m going to dip into are Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, as well as My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead.

My Life in Middlemarch

And don’t forget to check out own “best of” summaries for this year:

The best of 2014 in six books, one movie, one plus four podcasts, and three apps

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist


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December 5, 2014 @ 5:59 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

The best of 2014 in six books, one movie, one plus four podcasts, and three apps

I read many, many books this year, but here are the ones I enjoyed the most, in no particular order:

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Kept me up way past midnight. Waters is a master.


Caught by Lisa Moore. Delightful detail, smart dialogue and an intriguing plot. Wonderful! #CanLit

Life After Life

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Wow. I will read this novel again. If I had to chose one book for the year, this would be it.

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. I listened to this on, as read by Meryl Streep. Simply amazing.


Longbourn, by Jo Baker. I loved this novel about the servant world of Austen’s Pride & PrejudiceExtremely well done.

They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, a memoir by Plum Johnson. An often-funny yet moving account of dealing with parents’ “stuff” after their death. I wept! I laughed! #CanLit


Of course, I must also mention movies—well, just one, which I watched three times and will watch three times over again, no doubt. It’s the 2005 release of Pride & Prejudice, staring Kiera Knightly. I love this movie so much I can hardly stand it.


Ok, now for podcasts—but again, I’ll just mention one: Serial. It’s a reality-crime-mystery sort of series, and therefore highly unlikely to capture my interest, so trust me on this. It’s very well done—and extremely compelling.

Yet! How can I not also mention the podcasts that have been my daily bread for years? They include: This American Life, Learn French by Podcast, Book Review by the New York Times, and Writers & Company from CBC Radio.


In addition to my standby apps, I became fond this year of: Duolingo and Anki (for learning languages), and Lyne (a game).

And, as if this weren’t enough, here is another 2014 shortlist:

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist

You might also want to check out my last year’s round-up:

My top 5 fiction titles for 2013: virginal and not

My top 5 non-fiction and memoir reads of 2013: a canvas in red, black & blue—irreverent, wise, tragic, and ultimately unforgettable




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December 3, 2014 @ 8:46 am22 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Mags & blogs: my 2014 shortlist

I read the following magazines the moment they arrive:


Bookmarks:  This is a great magazine for readers. It compiles all the reviews of the most notable books by genre and makes a summary report.

MacWorld:  I’ve been a Mac Nerd since the birth of the 128K ugly little Mac. (Only 128K! It was amazing what I could do with that little machine.) I read this magazine cover to cover. You would think I would know more!


Renaissance Magazine:  This magazine gives the impression of being a bit cheesy. The cover is often of someone in historical dress—and often showing serious cleavage. It’s main readership, I gather, are people  involved in history reenactments, and this group takes historical accuracy very seriously. The articles in this magazine are wonderful, and I especially love the news of new historical discoveries.


The New Yorker:  Fine dining! Journalism at its best, IMO. I don’t read it immediately, but linger over each issue for some time.

As for blogs, I subscribe to many.  It was hard to come up with a shortlist, but here is:


Brainpickings:  This is by far my favourite blog, the New Yorker of blogs. If you’re not keen on computer-reading, it’s a great newsletter to subscribe to or follow on Flipboard. Intellectual, eclectic, and inspiring.


Cup of Jo:  This is my go-to blog for hip home magazine type fare: fashion, cooking, entertaining, travel, family. It’s all filtered through the eyes of Joanna Goddard, who is charming, smart, intimate and funny.


David Seah: It’s hard to explain why this blog fascinates me so, but I begin each day reading it. The highly personal daily posts deal with time-management, creativity and technology.

What are your favourite magazines and blogs?

Next up: books, movies and apps.


December 2, 2014 @ 11:31 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Bringing “Sunny Now & Then” to light—the mystery of the writing process


I just made a risky move!

To the subscribers of my newsletter, I’ve offered the first chapter of Sunny Now & Then—an unpublished novel I wrote in 1989.

Sunny is an eccentric 80-year-old who is somewhat inconveniently possessed by a spirit. It’s a light contemporary comedy/mystery. If you’re curious, and not a subscriber, sign up here. (If you are protective of your in-box—and who isn’t?—you can always unsubscribe.)

If you are already a newsletter subscriber, I’ll be offering this excerpt of Sunny Now & Then in my next newsletter.

What’s amusing about this early work, I think, is that although Sunny Now & Then is a contemporary comedy, it led directly to the writing and publication of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. five years later. (I think you can guess who the possessing spirit might be.)

Writing is such a circuitous and mysterious process!

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November 30, 2014 @ 6:16 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Hello world! On the drowsy, wandering, somewhat lost feeling one gets after sending off a draft

Stack of drafts

Day before yesterday, I sent the 4th draft of The Game of Hope (working title) to my editor at Penguin—3 days before the due date. Yay!

I woke the next morning with 1) a slight hangover  (Ha! The result of opting for the wine paring at a fantastic 4-course Thanksgiving dinner), 2) the novel feeling that I could poke around at most any number of things: my blogs, my newsletter, on-line shopping for the holidays coming up. My bookkeeping. (Scratch that idea.) Tidy my desk. Add the last scribbled-up pages to the draft stack (see above).

Curiously, I’m still rewriting in my mind … and thinking about the next novel, the second Young Adult about Hortense.


I plan to send out a newsletter soon. If you’re not on the mailing list, sign up here.

Shadow Queen

For this next newsletter, one of the subscribers (randomly selected) will win a personally inscribed, autographed hardcover edition of The Shadow Queen.

The Paying Guests

Reading: I’ve been reading many, many research books, but curiously—no doubt because I’ve been so immersed getting The Game of Hope ready to send outI’ve had a hard time reading fiction just now. The last novel I got completely absorbed in was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters—and yes, completely absorbed!

Watching: After watching Pride & Prejudice (2005, with Keira Knightly) three times, I branched out to The Young Victoria, and now I’m re-watching the 3rd season of Downton Abbey.


Listening: to Serial (the podcast). I’m almost finished listening to Washington, a Life, by Rob Chernow. This is an epic work.

Recent blog posts over on my research blog:

An old hat, a necklace, and a letter likely rescued from the trash sell for close to 6 million

Lost and found in France’s on-line library archives

Quarantine: How the spread of deadly diseases were dealt with in late 18th century France

I will have more and more there on the ever-absorbing Bonapartes.

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November 29, 2014 @ 3:39 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

New covers for The Shadow Queen and a suitcase of research books

 herald 2 copy

Tra la!

Here’s The Shadow Queen cover for the U.S. Anchor paperback edition, coming out in January:

Shadow Queen Anchor (US) ppbk cover

It’s almost identical to the hardcover cover, which pleases me very much, since it is so very striking, my favourite cover ever.

I am curious to see what HarperCollins Canada comes up with; their intention is to create something quite different.

As for different, here is The Shadow Queen cover for my Sandra Gulland INK edition, by the ever-so-talented Kris Waldherr.


It should be ready to launch soon. I’m toying with the idea of publishing print editions as well as digital. We shall see.

Suitcase of books

With this last suitcase of research books now unpacked, I’m very nearly settled into my office in San Miguel de Allende. Time to get to work! I’ve a Dec. 1 deadline for The Game of Hope, and that will be upon me sooner than I realize.

Have a wonderful weekend! I hope you’re reading something delightful. I’m reading a rather horrid little book on the virtues of being tidy. More on this later. The author does make some good suggestions.

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November 8, 2014 @ 7:40 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Last day in the bunker, first day of my 70th decade


Today is our day to pack up, for tomorrow we leave first thing, heading to Toronto. On Thursday late afternoon, we’ll be driving into beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


I’m always delighted to arrive in San Miguel, but I’m also always sad to head south—sad to leave my library of research books, my lovely office (“the bunker”) overlooking fields and forest. It’s a difficult process. In the next 6 months I’m going to be finishing The Game of Hope as well as beginning the next Young Adult about Hortense (tentatively titled The Princess Problem). What will I need? It’s so hard to know.

Today I will finish going through all the piles of papers and books I’ve stacked up, decide what must come, what can stay, and what should be scanned into Evernote. The life of a Historical Novelist Snow Bird is made much easier with computers and the Net (there is so much more on-line now), but there is still a surprising amount I must take with me.

And … !

Today is my 70th birthday! My party was two days ago; it was wonderful and I feel splendidly fêted. It had a 60s theme (because I was in my final days of being a 60-something), the costumes were fantastic and the playlist I put together—with the help of this site—kept us rocking ‘n rolling all night. Old folks grooving!

Most special, our son Chet made a surprise visit from New York!


Frankly, I was a bit depressed for a time about the approach of this shocking milestone (What?! Me, elderly?!), but now I feel that there is something quite energizing about turning 70. One realizes that it’s time to begin to focus on what’s important. I feel it will be my most creative decade.

Bring it on!

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November 3, 2014 @ 3:14 pm5 comments already! | Leave a Comment

Embarking on draft 4


Revision is daunting, and each revision is daunting in it’s own way. It always feels like a strange and unwieldy process. How to begin? Where to begin?

I began by making a list:

  • easy changes
  • harder changes
  • hard changes

When starting out, it’s best to begin with easy changes, and work up to the more challenging ones.

I was stopped in my tracks at the first heading. What was the name of Hortense’s school? What was it called at the time?

This simple question plummeted me into Google-land research, which, in the way of the Net, opened up wondrous worlds.

Then, of course, I was compelled to post to my research blog, Baroque Explorations:

Handwriting samples: Napoleon’s, Josephine’s, and that of Christophe Duroc. 

On-line research: subscription publication—an 18th century method of fund-raising?

Yes, a form of procrastination, I know.


It just now occurred to me that my deadline is five weeks off, and that I am travelling for most of it.

Full stop.

I believe it time for me to make a list of essential changes, never mind easy, harder and hard.

As Napoleon would say: Basta! Get to work!




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October 18, 2014 @ 7:59 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

A writer’s routine: perseverance furthers


A reader asks:

“I’ve written my second novel and I just can’t seem to get it to the next step. I’m stuck in the querying process and it is quite the daunting process indeed.”

Daunting: yes.

Perseverance is key

Perseverance is the key to succeeding as a writer:

  • perseverance in continually learning about the craft,
  • perseverance in not being discouraged by rejection (and even learning from it),
  • perseverance in never giving up.

All of your questions (and more) will be answered in this excellent YouTube video interview by John Truby.

John Truby is a screenwriter, director and teacher of screenwriting. He has a very great deal to offer on the craft of story, so centrally important to novels as well as film.


In terms of plot craft, Truby’s book, Anatomy of Story, is excellent, but an even better book—at least to begin with, I think—is Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. It is short and to-the-point.


Study the craft, revise, persevere.

(While you are waiting for responses to your second novel, you are working on your third novel: right?)

For more in this Writer’s Routine series:

A writer’s routine: how many … hours, days, words?

A writer’s routine: pantster or plotter?

A writer’s routine: how to get into a creative head space

A writer’s routine: evolving what works

A writer’s routine: where to write

A writer’s routine: on resisting an outline

A writer’s routine: how to be productive

A writer’s routine: on hunting & gathering

Image at the top from “A Most Delicate Art” at BibliOdyssey.

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October 14, 2014 @ 2:14 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Run-around ping-pong & other Canadian Thanksgiving sports


Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians!

We host a rather large table of 20+ family and friends every year—a jolly pot-luck feast followed by fun and games (pool, run-around ping-pong,* a walk down our long driveway in the dark). My favourite holiday.

The Game of Hope

I’m finishing the read/edit of the 3rd draft of The Game of Hope (working title). The first 50 pages have some seriously sluggish spots, but by page 200, the novel seems to gather steam. Much to be done, of course—too many dropped threads—but not impossible. I may feel differently by the time I finish … and when I get feedback from my first editor (Allison McCabe) on Monday.

The book report


I’m making my way slowly through a magnificent book I was very lucky to be able to acquire (thank you, Peter Hicks!) at the Fondation Napoléonn in Paris: Atlas de Paris au Temps de Napoléon, by Irène Delage and Chantal Prévot.

Atlas page spread

It is full of wonderfully detailed information about Paris in those years, with amazing charts and illustrations.


I don’t think I mentioned a book I read this summer, an on-the-road interview with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky, Although of Course you End Up Becoming Yourself. There are many moving things about this account, notably the sadness knowing that DFW killed himself in 2008.

The foreword by David Lipsky described the long period of absolute hell David Foster Wallace went though as doctors tried (and failed) to find a medication that would help his depression. We have all, no doubt, known someone who likewise lost a battle with depression; I consider it as serious and potentially fatal condition as cancer, and far less understood. The foreword by Lipsky helped me to understand how extremely hard this struggle is, even with loving support and help.


Of the interview itself, I found much of it interesting — insider gossip about publishing, etc. — and also enlightening. I liked how he felt beholden to his publishers to do as much as he could to help sell the book — Infinite Jest, in this case. I myself feel that way, and I know of big-time authors who don’t need to promote, who do so just for this reason.

I was amused that at one point, working with his editor, he was worried about how long the manuscript had become, and sent it in 9-point font, single-spaced. I did the reverse.  Worried that I had cut too much from The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., I sent it to my editor printed out in a bigger-sized font.

It was interesting having a glimpse into the lives of these two men born in the early 60s. I had no idea that people of a certain generation could be so addicted to TV. Not being a TV-watcher myself (except for the occasional drama-series binge), this was a revelation.

* Run-around ping pong: a game for at least ten people, preferably in a somewhat inebriated state, each with a paddle. The object is to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, the players circling, taking a turn at the ball. If we can get to ten: big cheer!

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October 11, 2014 @ 1:50 pmBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment

Travel-lag, research-lag, To-Do-List-lag



We’re back from a trip to London and Paris—I’ve a lot to absorb! No wonder I feel so “lagged” (not just jet-lagged).

Today I began the read/edit of the 4th draft of The Game of Hope. I always think I can whip through a manuscript in a matter of days—this one is only 70,500 words, after all—but I began this morning at 6:00, and I’m only on page 41.   (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an emoticon.)

Not that there isn’t a lot going on.

I’ve been posting a blog series on writing, a lovely thing to do when not writing. My latest post: A writer’s routine: on hunting & gathering. I hope to pull them all together for a modest Sandra Gulland INK e-book publication.

Speaking of INK publications, we have a beautiful cover by Kris Waldherr for the INK edition of The Shadow Queen.


I’m turning 70 —  (heh) — in one month, and I admit that it’s throwing me for a bit of a loop. Normally I’m fine with birthdays; I celebrate them! But 70?! How did that happen? I’ve been too busy to notice.

To be thrown for a loop: such a curious phrase. According to one Net site, the loop “alludes to the comic-strip image of a person pushed hard enough to roll over in the shape of a loop.” Another says that “loop” refers to the force of a train, plane, or roller coaster when it travels in a loop, causing your head to spin. And yet another, of a calf brought down by a lariat looped around a leg. All very colourful. I’ll go for the comic-strip image.

Re. the craft of writing, this is a wonderful interview with John Truby, author of Anatomy of Story. Everything he says about scriptwriting applies to novels.

What I’m reading:


I’ve been listening to the biography Washington: a Life by Ron Chernow. (It’s excellent.)


The Paying Guests by Sara Waters, also excellent.

I’m also reading, for research, a number of books, but I’ll just mention here a book on Fanny Burney which includes snippets that were deleted from her diaries, many having to do with the mundane details of daily life. Of course I love it.

The image at top is of the novelist Madame de La Fayette, also weary.

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October 7, 2014 @ 8:41 amBe the first to comment! | Leave a Comment