What We Were Reading in 2015: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Last November we shared some of our favorite reads from the year. We decided to do it again for 2015 and as our list came together, we discovered that our suggestions range from audio books to blogs to novels. These were all things we read in 2015, regardless of when they were published. The list includes at least one ARC for a work to be published in 2016.

Background Image: Fatima M/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Fatima M/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Baker’s recommendations:

I read practically all day long, mostly non-fiction and news. I’ve always been a slow reader. More accurately, I’m a reader who likes to savor the read. When I get close to the end of something I’m loving, I read more slowly and in shorter bursts so that it lasts. My recommended reads from 2015 made it impossible for me to throw that brake.

Essays by Charles Pierce

Charlie is my political reading recommendation for 2015. He writes for Esquire, usually from a progressive viewpoint but those on the left aren’t any safer from his laser focus than those on the right. His humor is impossible to hide but when the subject is serious, his wit becomes razor-sharp critique. My feeling about his writing, particularly his voice, makes me think of a line Clark Gable delivers as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind: “We’re alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd but able to look things in the eyes and call them by their right names.” Nearly every day, Charlie’s essay (or essays; he’s prolific) gives voice to what’s on my mind.

The Last Days of Graceland” by Elise Jordan

I read this article on a somewhat stressful day, when I needed a portable distraction. With free wifi and lots of downtime, I thought Buzzfeed would fit the bill so I headed to the site. Instead of another silly list or meme, I found this fascinating, inspiring account of Paul MacLeod’s life, death, and passion: Graceland Too, a “museum” that was little more than a display of a zealous fan’s collection of memorabilia. The key to this essay is Jordan’s connection to its subject; Graceland Too was the stop-and-point house in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. By adding her personal experience, she creates the frame of community within which she sketches out a near-Shakespearean tragedy of family, obsession, and murder.

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My favorite read of 2015, this is more than a memoir. Coates structures the book as a letter to his son, which makes this reflection on blackness in America an intimate conversation as well as an impetus to a long overdue examination of race in our national history, in our culture, and in our future as well as in our own hearts and minds.

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming

Another memoir, this time by actor Alan Cumming. I liked the “then/now” structure, the suspense and mystery carried throughout, and the theme of fathers, sons, and what we withhold versus what we give and how.

Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence” by Anne Thériault

Women share universal experiences relevant to their sex. Thériault chronicles a handful of instances of abuse, sexism, assault and more against the backdrop of male aggression that’s accepted in our culture. In the final section, she states that she tries not to be afraid yet admits that she is (a piece of bravery in its own right). In an online world where outspoken women receive death threats and rape threats for the simple act of speaking their truth, voices like Thériault’s are rare and deserve to be amplified, not silenced.

Mystery Science Storybook: Bedtime Tales Based on the Worst Movies Ever by Sugar Ray Dodge

On a light note, I loved this comic by Sugar Ray Dodge. Dodge maintains the RiffTrax wiki and is also a talented artist. His unique drawing style fits perfectly with the RiffTrax aesthetic and his story work hits the sweet spot between homage and satire (like its source material). Drawing on the original works that the RiffTrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000 crews riff(ed), Dodge follows in the traditional by skewering all sides. No one is safe and your sides will pay the price.

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Broker’s recommendations:

Snapshots From Space by Emily Lakdawalla

Lakdawalla blogs at the Planetary Society website about planetary science, and did a lot to piece together the pictures from the Pluto flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft (the data are still coming in!), in addition to other space probes out there exploring our solar system.

Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

Plait is also in the business of making astronomy accessible. Phil’s interests are more wide ranging, including some non-astronomical topics, and he’s great at explaining things in the news.

Widower’s Grief by Mark Liebenow

And to shift gears completely, check out Liebenow’s blog. Mark lost his wife suddenly a few years ago, and he writes honestly (and well!) about the process of coping with grief.

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Harpspeed’s recommendations:

Finding time to read this year has been a challenge. Yet the idea of not reading is so unfathomable.  I met that challenge with a little ingenuity and some stolen time—I’m learning to multitask. My personal reading selections this past year have been exclusively audio books. I generally read about 30 minutes most mornings while running or walking really-really fast. The 30 minutes explains the shortness of my list. It takes several hours to finish a story. And I never do the math when I am contemplating purchasing a story; I never ever calculate in advance how many hours it will take me to finish a particular book. That would be depressing with so many books on my list.

Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Winter People has elements of mystery and historical fiction. It is the story of two women separated by time whose fates cross in a thrilling realization: The dead can come back. Think Laura Ingalls meets Sleepy Hollow. This story is also about the family ties; mothers and daughters are prominent. This is my current listen and McMahon’s story has hooked me with her rural characters and eerie setting. The landscape in this story holds many secrets revealed bit by bit in its folklore. I’ve met some of the historical characters and anticipate meeting their modern counterparts soon.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

This story was recommended by my friend, Lisa, who loves horror and psychological thrillers. She is my go-to-girl for a good thrilling read. Malerman’s story has has elements of both. A realistic fiction story set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic world. This story is terrifying because in order to survive, the characters must keep their eyes closed when they venture outside—outside to where curious and dangerous creatures roam. Much of the story is told in flashback by the main character—a young mother of two in a desperate flight to find a mysterious sanctuary from the creatures and from a hopeless existence. The pacing is excellent. Malerman dials up the terror, chapter by chapter, leading the reader up a very steep climax and over the edge to the very last page.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

Gruen’s story, set in Scotland during World War II is a cozy, entertaining read. Three wealthy American socialites cross the Atlantic to hunt the Loch Ness Monster. The characters reminded me of classic old movie characters with their speech, mannerisms and triangle—say Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Loretta Young. Gruen writes great characters and I enjoyed all the discourse and conversations that strayed from what I thought was the main plot. Or was it?  This story is more about the journey than the destination and much is revealed in small moments in the small Scottish village where Maddie and her two handsome friends wait out the war hunting for Nessie.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I love reading stories set during World War 2. This Pulitzer Prize winning story was exceptional. Two star crossed characters—one a brilliant young orphan boy who is commandeered by the German army to fix radios and the other character, a young blind French girl who spends her days in a Paris museum where her father works as chief locksmith. The two characters are drawn to each other unknowingly at first by a legend of an exquisite diamond that the blind girl’s father smuggles out of the museum before Paris falls. The Germans know of its existence and of the legend it promises to its owner. Meanwhile, the French resistance is infiltrating German intelligence and the brilliant German orphan boy finds himself in Paris working for the wrong side when he becomes aware of the lovely, blind French girl with a dangerous secret whom his commanding officer will kill for.

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Billiard’s recommendations:

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson

As I wrote on Goodreads, I really, really loved this. I saw that another reviewer described it as “If there were a Girl Scout camp in Gravity Falls,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s about right.” If paranormal weirdness isn’t your thing, you might want to skip this one. Some people seem to be put off by the art style, but I thought it was cute and suited the story quite well.

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Published in 2014, but I read it in 2015. Delightful.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler: SNL alum, Tina Fey bestie, Leslie Freakin’ Knope. Amy Poehler is an awesome lady who does awesome things, of which this book is just one of many, many examples.

Reflections (Indexing #2) by Seanan McGuire

Indexing is a Kindle serial. It combines a procedural with fairy tales and I often wonder how no one has optioned it for a TV series yet.

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Bellman’s recommendations:

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

This latest installment in Bujold‘s Vorkosigan series is a change of pace from the usual, so it may not appeal to someone expecting her usual fast-pasted adventures. Described as “a book for grownups”, I’d classify it as a pastoral story, and I found it a delightful change of pace. One of the reasons I return to Bujold over and and over is for her persistent message of how it’s never too late. It’s never too late to turn your life around, or to find your life anew, or to change. That’s a message I never tire of, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is a trumpet of defiance in the face of the constant “You’re too old…” messages society bombards us with.

The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove

The world-building premise of The Glass Sentence is that time and space have fractured and resettled in unconnected pieces. So 1890s Boston and the prehistoric ice ages coexist side by side. In addition, the “Great Disruption” that shattered the world caused many of these eras to develop alternate histories to the ones people were familiar with. Map-making is half science, half magic, and the various maps include maps to people’s memories. It’s a fascinating world, and the adventures of Sophia Tims, the thirteen-year-old heroine of the book, create a solid story within it.

The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

This is a dark book for middle grade readers. It looks at friendship and trust through a very twisted lens. Alistair is approached by his grade-school friend Fiona, who tells him about a world where kids’ daydreams are made real, but that the kids there end up disappearing from the real world when they are taken by The Riverman in the other world. Starmer does a really good job of creating a truly creepy and disturbing atmosphere where it is hard to tell what’s real, what’s imagined, and what’s good or bad.

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Beaver’s recommendations:

The way we tell stories is evolving along with our smartphones” by Kate Pullinger

Pullinger is both a traditional novelist and author of digital fiction. She co-created the ongoing digital novel Inanimate Alice.

As well as using our phones more, we are also accessing multiple forms of content on these devices. We make and watch videos, we take and share photos. We chatter. We play games. We watch movies and TV. We listen. And we read. We read texts and messages, we read social media feeds, we read journalism, we read gossip, we read commentary. A lot of the time we spend staring at our phones we are reading.
And yet most of us don’t consider our phones to be our primary reading device, despite evidence to the contrary; when asked “what are you reading?” (does anyone ask this question anymore?) we might look a bit guilty, as the title of the last book we finished escapes us.

Humans of New York. “HONY provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.” Yes, there’s a book, but the best way to read/view these snapshot stories is in their original form on social media. The typical story is a one-shot, but others are serialized over multiple posts. Tumblr | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

Where Love is Illegal. “Documenting and sharing LGBTI stories of discrimination and survival from around the world.” Similar in format to HONY—glimpses into the lives of people around the world through a single photograph and brief story. Tumblr | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

What Would You Grab in a Fire?” by Megan Stielstra

There’s a Tumblr I’ve followed for years called The Burning House. It’s a hypothetical exercise in what you’d grab if your house was on fire. Stielstra’s piece is The Burning House come to life—the decision-making moments after she finds out her home is on fire. I read it in January, but the piece took on added weight a few months later when I woke in the middle of the night to shouts of “fire!” It turned out it was the building next door, but it was a close enough call that I did learn for myself what I’d really grab in a fire.

Farewell to America” by Gary Younge

Of the many things I read this year on the current state of affairs in the US, this piece lingered with me, perhaps because of Younge’s outsider/insider perspective.

This is the summer I will leave America, after 12 years as a foreign correspondent, and return to London. … [W]hile the events of the last few years did not prompt the decision to come back, they do make me relieved that the decision had already been made. It is why I have not once had second thoughts. If I had to pick a summer to leave, this would be the one. Another season of black parents grieving, police chiefs explaining and clueless anchors opining. Another season when America has to be reminded that black lives matter because black deaths at the hands of the state have been accepted as routine for so long. A summer ripe for rage.

The Chef Who Saved My Life” by Brett Martin

A story about life and food and writing…

Meanwhile, through the years, I told the story of my own meal with Jacques. Often. It’s a good story—heavy but not too heavy, semi-confessional, a dash of celebrity, a happy ending. One evening, occasioned by a shared plate of prosciutto at The Tasting Kitchen, a restaurant in Venice Beach, I told it to an especially sharp friend. When I was done, he looked at me for a long time. You should write about that, he told me. Sure, I plan to, I said.

Then he said, ”Don’t make it an obituary.”

What We Were Reading in 2014: Recommended by the Editors

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

The real writer is one who really writes (thanks Marge Piercy), but writers need to read, too. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” But with so much to choose from sometimes it’s hard to decide what to read next. So we asked the editors what they read this year and what they’d recommend to TC readers and here is what they had to say.

What We Were Reading In 2014

Background Image: Paul Bence/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Baker recommends:

Carsick by John Waters. Equal parts fiction and memoir, even more fun with the author-read audio book. Not to everyone’s taste but if it’s to your taste, we should get together for lunch.

Captain Marvel (ongoing series). Sometimes the “as you know Bob” element of comics deters me from reading but I am absolutely captured by the new Captain Marvel. The visuals are lush; the story and dialogue are well ahead of standard comics. Captain Marvel will be looked back on as a turning point in what comics can be.

Closing Time by Joe Queenan. While reading on my Kindle, I wanted to reach through the screen. Sometimes to comfort Queenan and sometimes to fingerpoke him in the shoulder. Long in my “to read” pile, I finally got around to it and hated putting it down, even when Queenan frustrated me with his word choice or double standards.

Tina DuPuy (blog, columns, articles, Twitter). DuPuy’s voice is clear and unapologetic, with humor and more than an occasional dose of snark. She writes from a progressive viewpoint on topics that are always ahead of the mainstream. Reading her prepares me to talk about the next big thing when it turns up on everyone’s lips.

The Shame of Poor Teeth in a Rich World” by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon Magazine). I think that Americans don’t talk often enough or realistically enough about poverty and its effect on generation after generation, not just in big ways but in small. John Cheese has written on the topic for Cracked (+ and +), combining truth and dark humor. Smarsh’s piece came to my attention through social media. I shared it liberally but it didn’t catch on the way I think it should have. I can only imagine that it’s because of its specificity and that specificity is why this simple 3,500 word essay still crosses my mind often nearly a month after I read it. My husband and I discussed our personal experiences relevant to the article over dinner and in the car and while brushing our teeth before bed. Even if you don’t share the experience, Smarsh’s writing draws in the reader and paints an unpretty picture I think more Americans should see.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Billiard recommends:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Saga is an ongoing comic series, but it’s one that I read when the collected volumes are published. It’s fantasy/SF, and the plot is…difficult to explain. It’s about war, and love, and literature, and it is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in quite some time. Volume 3 was published in March of this year, but you’ll probably want to start with Volume 1.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Weibe. Like Saga, Rat Queens is an ongoing comic series. Volume 1 was published in April. This book has a female-led cast, and is a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also difficult to explain, so allow me to borrow from Amazon’s description: “…a violent monster-killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!” Reading Rat Queens is some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

The Winter Long by Seanan McGuire. This is the eighth volume in Seanan’s October Daye series. Upon completing The Winter Long, I went back to the beginning and re-read the entire series. I never do this.

Seanan also has a blog, and while she mostly posts work and travel updates these days, sometimes she posts things like this. (Be aware that the linked post deals with depression and suicide.) Earlier this year, she published a collection of blog posts/essays called Letters to the Pumpkin King. Seanan’s nonfiction writing is witty, insightful, often hilarious, and occasionally heartbreaking. I love it; I hope you do, too.

I first encountered Lindy West last year on an episode of (the sadly canceled) Totally Biased where she appeared opposite comedian Jim Norton to discuss rape jokes. I found her to be funny and eloquent and started following her immediately. She writes about pop culture and feminism and body acceptance, formerly for Jezebel, but she’s very recently moved to GQ. Here’s a post from this year about liking Chris Pratt before it was cool.

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Broker recommends:

Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking. What it says on the box.

Anne Lamott, who has a wonderful blog and is just out with a new book, Small Victories. She has a way of shucking right down to the cob, saying simple-sounding things that are also very profound.

What-If by Randall Munroe. His comic is always worth reading, and he has a weekly answering the mail questions thing that’s gathered in the book. The rollover text on the comics is part of the fun.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the end of the Lane is seriously wonderful: magical realism and childhood nightmare all in one.

To round things out, this article from The Atlantic (not for the squeamish; it features parasites): How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” by Kathleen McAuliffe on work by Jaroslav Flegr.

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Harpspeed recommends:

I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. This mystery novel from an Icelandic writer is also part ghost story—Sigurdardóttir creates a fabulously atmospheric setting that make the word “creepy” obsolete.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I liked the juxtaposition of the two historical characters, deeply dimensional and rich.

This is a Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett. I am curiously drawn to writers’ personal stories and liked reading Pachett’s memoir because she also fills her pages with good advice for writers.

The Last Walk: Reflections on our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce. This story is part biography, memoir, ethical philosophy, and science journal in its examination of the author’s beloved dog’s descent into old age and the author, herself, who explores the many facets of the human-animal bond.

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injury by Amy Newmark and Carolyn Roy Bornstein. Disclosure: My friend, Carolyn, is one of the editors of this collection and recently gave me a signed copy knowing how interested I am in her work on the subject of writing and TBI, and that I enjoy reading personal essays; this collection is a great introduction to the power of the personal essay and the growing concern that is currently trending across America’s landscape.

Recommendations from TC’s archives:

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Beaver recommends:

Proof of Loss” by Emily Rapp (The Rumpus). Emily Rapp writes unsentimentally about continuing to live after the inevitable death of her son Ronan from Tay-Sachs disease: “In those final days of my son’s life, I thought I would die, but knew I would not, which made me want to die even more ardently. Still, I lived. How? Perhaps I didn’t live at all but existed, half-alive, half-dead, in some liminal space.”

Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women” by Rose Lichter-Marck (The New Yorker). I am fascinated by this story about creating and not-sharing and unasked-for posthumous fame. If you have a hard drive full of unpublished stories, you might be, too.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. An Untamed State grew out of a short story called “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” The novel starts where happily ever after leaves off, playing off both the sunny Disney versions of fairy tales we’re all familiar with and the dark, twisted original stories that didn’t hesitate to make readers uncomfortable.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. You should read it because it’s on every* best nonfiction book list of 2014. You should also follow Roxane on Twitter because she’s smart and hilarious and gives a lesson on how to deal with haters on a daily basis. (*possibly a slight exaggeration but not much)

One Long Country Song: What Friday Night Lights Taught Me About Storytelling”  by Hannah Gerson (The Millions). Hannah Gerson, on writing about that small town background she’d been avoiding and how watching TV “to relax” got her there. (Writers are always writing. Even when they’re not.)

Recommendations from TC’s archives:


Escape Your (Reading) Comfort Zone

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker & Beaver

  1. This month we challenge you to read outside your comfort zone. If you always read books by men, pick up a book by a woman writer. If you always read white writers, pick up a book by a writer of color. If you always read writers from your own country, pick up a book by a writer from another part of the world. If you always read fiction, pick up a memoir. And so on.
  2. Check out these hashtags for recommendations and discussion:
  3. Take the title—just the title—of one of the pieces in this month’s article and create a mind map. Write the title in the center of the paper, branch out from there with ideas until you’re dry, then go back to the center and start again. (For examples of mind maps, do a Google Images search for “mind map” or “mind map template”.)
  4. Many of the editors’ choices are deeply personal true stories. Write at least a paragraph (hopefully more) of one of your most personal, private stories. Afterward, put it away or delete it and write a fictional paragraph or poem inspired by your previous exercise.

Remembering to Read

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I read all the time. Twitter feeds, Facebook posts by the hundreds, forum posts, blogs, and emails. All day long, I’m reading something. It’s usually short, but informative. I take in a lot of facts, funnies, inspirations, and news.

As a writer, I’m learning to be brief. I’m learning how to write in fewer words than ever before. Learning how to read and absorb information and extrapolate facts from small blurbs and quotes. Learning how to get my point across without embellishments.

A co-worker started reading a book series that had been made into a television program. Because I knew the program, I was interested in the book and asked her how she liked them. She said it was her second time to read the series, which is twelve books long, and while she did watch the television show, the books were impressive, vastly different, and far richer than it could hope to be.

Talking to her, I realized I hadn’t read a book in well over a year. I tried to remember the last book I’d read, and I couldn’t. I tried to remember why I’d stopped reading and realized that I was “too busy” reading the quick and easy posts and tweets to spend time on a novel.

As a child, I would use books to escape reality and slip into worlds of magic and beauty. I would carry them with me everywhere and was ridiculed for having them. I would become so engrossed that I would skip meals and forget to go to bed on time and work the next day as if I’d spent the night drinking.

Another friend and I discussed the series of books one day, led there by discussing the television show, and she said she would send them to me. Expecting this to be a long time, I was surprised when a box full of the series arrived at my door. I eagerly took the first one and started reading. As I moved along in the first book I remembered what I had been missing.

The rich world of the written word is very different from the small blurbs we’re bombarded with each day on the Internet. I had forgotten how much fun it is to become immersed in a good story. As I’m reading, I’ll back up over passages I liked and read them again. I’ll savor a superb word, a handy turn-of-phrase, or take the time to draw the scene in my mind. I find I’m engrossed in the characters, the situations, and the world of the author.

As a writer, I find I’m also looking at it with a critical eye, too. I’ll read passages that didn’t sound right or that had an unexpected angle and go back again to try to find what was different and why. As a writer, I’m looking at what worked and why, and analyzing the word choices and differences in vocal presentations from each character.

Because it’s a series, I also have the opportunity to return to a previous book to refresh my mind on what came before. I can look at how the author got from one point to another and try to see his pattern and thought process. I look at his plot points and philosophies as they move from one novel to the next and try to guess where the next one will come in the book I’m on.

I found myself looking at what the author had to do to sell the series. How he had an idea for the first book which carried into the second and then changed drastically for the third. I lamented about his constant repeating what came before in the beginning chapters of each book… and how it’s rather annoying to read, since it’s longer each time, but I understand that he needs to do this in order to sell the book as a standalone.

As a writer, it’s important to read books and stay current. To know what is selling in your chosen field or genre and to see what new ideas are out there. You can read anything, of course, and be happy and enjoy it while still keeping the writer within happy. My editor with the Big Red Pen is happy to find a typo or a missing word anywhere, in any novel. She’s equally happy drawing a big moon, a forest, and a guy with a sword.

Keep your inner editor happy and read something. Grab or download a new novel that was released this week. If that’s too much for your busy life, there are great pieces showcased here at Toasted Cheese and many other online magazines. Heck, just pick up an old favored friend and take a trip down memory lane. Take your writing self on a little reading vacation!


Lisa “Boots” Olson is currently reading the Legend of the Seeker or Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind and is on book 10 of 12, Chainfire. (There are actually more than this and he adds them all the time.)

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