Review: “Laughter at the Academy,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: These stories made me feel things
Rating: 5 out of 5

Laughter at the Academy is a book of stand-alone short stories by Seanan McGuire (you don’t need to have read any of her series in order to read these stories–if you’ve never read her work before, this would be a great introduction!). The span of genres is great: science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, bio-thriller (more bio than thriller), apocalyptic, cosmic horror, and even a story set in a steampunk realm. Every story in here was a winner for me, which can be unusual in anthologies (although less unusual in single-author anthologies). Some stories naturally hit me harder than others, but I have to tell you, I felt things while reading these. I may have even bawled my eyes out once.

The first story, Laughter at the Academy, introduces us to the idea of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder, and how it results in outbreaks of mad scientists. It’s a wonderful, twisted, beautiful take on mad scientists and how they’re created.

There are some stories that I can’t explain much about without giving too much away, but that gave me a really nice chill or shudder. Lost is one of these, and it starts with children being drawn to the night sky. Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage introduces us to a portal fantasy, where a young woman has been saving a fantasy land in her spare time. This is definitely a chilling one! Frontier ABCs involves a not-as-young-as-she-looks schoolteacher and the guns she makes use of in her spare time.

I’ve always been a big fan of bio-terror end-of-the-world stories, and The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells delivers quite nicely. A scientist who’s been trying to warn the world about the dangers of disease decides she’s warned humanity enough. Each to Each is neither bio-terror nor end-of-the-world, but it has hints of both. Women serving in the Navy are being modified to survive in the sea, and all the details that go into that are fascinating. Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare details how a race of alien plants comes to earth. The first to make it ate a young lady’s maid, taking on her memories and understanding, allowing her to grow close to the ruling humans.

Uncle Sam is an unexpected treat. To quote the intro, “This is the story of Uncle Sam, and the founding of the United States of America, and why girls always go to the bathroom in groups…” (If that combination doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will!) It’s a little riff on modern folklore. Driving Jenny Home is a bittersweet telling of a phantom girlfriend who asks for a ride home. I shed a few tears. Another folklore-based story is In Skeleton Leaves, which is a very unusual Peter Pan tale.

Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust is an “urban fantasy film noir” take on the world of the Wizard of Oz. Dot is a Princess of Oz, the Crossover Ambassador, and the Wicked Witch of the West–and she has to solve a murder in a city where everyone hates her. This story is sharp as a knife!

Homecoming is my favorite story in here, even though it centers around football and cheerleaders, which I have no interest in. A mysterious game of football is played with cheerleaders who seem to know more than they’re saying. The sides are chosen as the game progresses, and that isn’t the only irregularity. This one, umm, might have actually made me cry. “October never ends if the game is never truly finished.”

We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War is another story that I found absolutely gripping. When AI was discovered, we were (for once) smart enough to not put it in charge of our weapons or our healthcare system or anything like that. No, we built it into toys that were made to be self-learning teachers to our children. Yeah, that couldn’t possibly go wrong… “The war is over and the war will never end.” My favorite touch in this story is that the first AI toys were built to help non-neurotypical children, who needed a friend who could adapt to their needs.

The Lambs is another take on how smart robots might be used. Someone developed robots who can pass as human. Bullying was such a problem in schools that there was at least one “lamb” inserted into each class. Their purpose was both to draw the ire of the bullies away from other loners, and to record all the instances of bullying so that they could ‘tell on’ the bullies at graduation. There’s a lot of fascinating detail in how they have to balance everything in order to keep people from identifying the lambs, and we definitely get into the down sides of putting children under constant surveillance.

A couple of these stories have very unusual formats. Bring About the Halloween Eternal!!! is, in fact, told as a Kickstarter campaign! It’s a hilarious and fun look at how someone plans to bring about an eternal Halloween, and defeat her older sister, who wants to make Christmas rule. Office Memos is told through, what else, office memos. It’s a delightful tale of a Gremlin hired by a company and how she makes life… interesting… for them. This one really made me smile. From A to Z in the Book of Changes is… well, I’m not honestly sure how to describe it. It’s a bunch of entries in the form of a children’s “A is for…” guide. Except not for children. #connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere is a story of ghost hunters checking out a haunted house, told through tweets. Don’t skip the hash tags! This one is surprisingly gripping and frightening.

There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold I found slightly confusing at first, but it’s well worth sticking with. The premise is unusual (let’s just say that a woman is making some very strange dolls), but the real meat of the story is in a very satisfying tale of revenge. Another guilty pleasure vengeance tale is Please Accept My Most Profound Apologies for What Is About to Happen (But You Started It), in which a genius loner with an obsession with dinosaurs takes their revenge on their childhood bullies. And, well, everyone else, too.

Threnody for Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World is a very sad little tale of climate change and the world’s last known Pacific Bluefin tuna, named Matthew. Tears were involved when I read this one.

Another of my favorites is Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves, which is an oddly hopeful bit of Lovecraftian work. Violet is a grad student at Harvard, only she’s experimenting on her fellow students. When she invites four of them to accompany her back to her family’s bed and breakfast for a little getaway, they certainly don’t expect to become part of a gruesome experiment.

Content note for gender-based slurs, occasional discussion or depiction of prejudice, and bullying. There are several nice depictions of same-sex relationships.

This is a truly wonderful collection of short stories, with ups, downs, love, revenge, the end of the world, and so much more.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part III,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: Rather unlikable characters
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part III” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set. In volume I, Nurse Susan Branch tried to juggle a job with taking care of her seriously (and mysteriously) ill husband, John. She lost her job only to find out that he’s been causing his own injuries and illnesses out of a need for attention and a deep-seated masochism. In a fit of anger she attacked him, and in volume II he told her all about his childhood and tried to convince her that now that she’s let her violent side out, they’re perfect for each other. Now Susan has to make a false police report of an intruder in their home to explain why her husband is so terribly injured. Unfortunately for her, one of the police officers becomes convinced there’s something more going on than the husband and wife are saying. And it’s Susan the police suspect of ill-doing. Just to make things worse, for once John is genuinely ill–he has cancer. And Susan won’t be home to take care of him this time.

As before, these characters are over-the-top and unlikable, but it’s hard to look away from their shared perversities and bizarre problems. John is so self-centered that he even believes that Susan is kept in jail because her being away is what he deserves for being so manipulative. Absolutely everything is about him in his eyes. But it’s interesting to see how at least part of how bad he’d gotten was due to her enabling as well, when we inevitably have a moment of seeing them together again. They’re both profoundly messed-up people, and well, maybe they do deserve each other in some strange way.

Content note for sex, detailed deterioration due to cancer, and violence.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part II,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: The characters are over-the-top
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part II” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set, which includes three volumes. In volume I, Nurse Susan Branch tried to juggle a job with taking care of her seriously (and mysteriously) ill husband, John. Now Susan has just lost her job, only to find out when she arrived home early that her husband, who has spent nearly all of his life battling illness and injury, has been doing it to himself deliberately. It seems to be a combination of a need for attention and a not-so-healthy dose of masochism. In a flying rage, she beat him with the hammer he’d been using to raise his own bruises. In response, John is… happy. While Susan is trying to cope with what she’s just learned, John is trying to push their relationship to a new level. He wants them to be co-conspirators now.

As I noted in my review of volume I, these are not likable characters. It’s for the best that these three novellas are fairly short, because they rely on a kind of train-wreck fascination with horrible people, and that only goes so far. This time the story is from John’s point of view, and he spends the time telling Susan all about his childhood and how it shaped his current behavior. His childhood was another kind of train wreck altogether. There’s some hint that part of his mental illness might be inherited, and the rest was clearly shaped by the events of his childhood. I am curious to see where things go in volume III. It’s interesting to see the couple’s evolution from caretaker/invalid to possible co-conspirators.

Content note for sexual content, violence, and animal harm.

I wanted for both of us to let out our Mr. Hydes to play together.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part I,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: The characters are over-the-top
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part I” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set, which includes three volumes. In part I, we meet John Branch and his wife, Susan, who’s a nurse. John has a long and storied history of illness dating back to his childhood. He has some sort of tricky blood disorder, constantly turns up bruised, has broken a number of bones, and ends up in the hospital regularly. Susan is beside herself trying to keep her job while taking care of him. They’ve lost his family wealth, Susan isn’t showing up to work regularly (and has started stealing Demerol for John), and Susan has started finding strange things in the house (a hammer under their bed; an opened bottle of anti-freeze).

John is, from the start, clearly manipulative. There’s an odd son/mother vibe to his relationship with Susan, and he often convinces her to do things by acting childlike. It isn’t long before we find out that the only times his mother paid him any attention when he was young was when he was ill, so the suspicions pile up quickly. Susan’s life is falling apart–where will it take her next?

I’m not really sure whether I’d consider this horror, or a thriller, or perhaps some odd thing like “psychological fiction”–the author is exploring a disorder through the lens of watching a couple fall apart. I did find some of the material (particularly John’s manipulation) to be rather over-the-top, and of course there are no really likable characters in here. Even Susan is a bit of a martyr, steals Demerol, and has a few racist thoughts running around in her head.

Content note for explicit sex and a variety of unflinching medical descriptions. (As a note in case you’re thinking of reading the whole series, there’s also a little bit of animal harm in the next volume.)

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Review: “Beyond Surrender,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Such a sweet, hot romance
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kit Rocha’s Beyond Surrender (Beyond, Book 9) concludes the war that has broken out in her post-apocalyptic erotic romance Beyond series. Nessa is every O’Kane’s younger sister–she grew up around the gang, and she’s also the key to their wealth with her skill at distilling liquor. As she is a sort of younger sister, none of the regular gang members are about to put the moves on her. But she likes sex, and she wishes for the kind of partnership some of the other gang members have found. Unfortunately, any smart men interested in her probably just want the money she could make for them. And frankly, she isn’t too fond of the not-so-smart men. She recently met Ryder, the head of Sector Five who was raised to be a weapon, to win a war against Eden that’s already begun. And oh, does Ryder look delicious (although she really needs to teach him how to appreciate fine liquor). Luckily he has more than enough wealth of his own and has no need of hers, and he’s just as interested in her as she is in him. The question is whether the two of them can carve out happiness in the middle of a war.

The war hits its climax in this volume. Noah uses his skills to kill Eden’s electricity. There’s an interesting subplot as he goes up against Penelope, Eden’s top hacker, who’s loyal to Councilman Markovic but believes him to be dead. The sectors plan to use Markovic in some propaganda of their own with the goal of getting as many of Eden’s citizens as possible to either join on their side or even just sit the whole thing out. It’s time for the sectors to strike at Eden, before Eden can mess up the sectors too much more. This becomes particularly clear when Eden finds a new way to strike at Sector Four, leaving quite a few people dead and injured.

I like that there are so many interesting characters we’ve come to care about that it’s possible to introduce painful losses into the story without robbing us of the romance-genre expected Happily Ever After (which might be tempered a little in this post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting, but is still basically intact).

Ryder and Nessa are probably the simplest pairing in the series so far, and the most straightforward. The situation of the war itself, and how they were both raised, puts enough obstacles in their way. Nessa is more than a little raw and crude herself, so there’s plenty of straightforward sex and sex talk. The sex in this one is straighter than in the others–straight m/f, no kink, no orgies.

I don’t know if this is meant to be the last book in the Beyond series. It is the last book in the full-series bundle I bought, which probably indicates that it is. However, I noticed recently that Kit Rocha has started a spin-off series about Gideon’s Riders, so I look forward to that!

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Review: “Beyond Ecstasy,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Things reach the boiling point!
Rating: 5 out of 5

In this volume of Kit Rocha’s post-apocalyptic erotic romance Beyond series, Beyond Ecstasy (Beyond, Book 8), Hawk and Jeni finally get together. He’s been obsessing over her, but he doesn’t want her O’Kane-style, with easy sex and no jealousy involved. He wants a more traditional relationship with “forever” as the goal. Jeni’s been trying to haul him into bed for months, and had absolutely no idea he had all of this in mind. The sectors have been dark for a month when they finally realize they might have something special together, and war could break out at any time. There’s even a possibility that there are spies within Sector Four, and everyone’s worried that the first casualty of war would be Sector Six, where Hawk’s family lives on farmland.

Jeni and Hawk’s relationship is perhaps the most conventional of those depicted in this series (so far). Hawk is extremely intense and focused, and Jeni’s just usually down for a good time. The inevitable war puts additional stress on them and their feelings for each other. The closest they have to an O’Kane moment is one lone night where Gia, Jeni, and Hawk share a bed for a while. The sex is as always explicit, frequent, and front-and-center. It involves d/s and s/m sex, with Hawk slowly feeling out how to participate in that sort of sex–which he longs for–without going too far.

We also get to spend some time with Hawk’s huge extended family in Sector Six, where he takes Jeni to meet his family. Hawk has many stepmothers and half-siblings since his biological father had quite a few wives when he was alive. Thankfully his mother is now free to do things her own way, and she’s a particularly strong woman. I enjoyed meeting so many of the people from the farm. There are just so many interesting characters in this extensive series, and I only occasionally get them confused because they have so much personality to them.

The war finally breaks out in this installment of the series, and I may have shed a few tears at one point. Our heroes definitely don’t have an easy time of things. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next!

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Review: “Beyond Ruin,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Wonderful depiction of group love; great plot progression
Rating: 5 out of 5

In the latest installment of Kit Rocha’s post-apocalyptic erotic romance series, Beyond Ruin (Beyond, 7), we concentrate on four characters. Jade was raised as a courtesan and spy in Sector Two. With Lex’s help she escaped, and she’s become a part of the O’Kanes. Now Sector Two has been bombed by Eden, and she’s determined to rescue as many of Sector Two’s girls as she can. Adrian Maddox is the “prince” of Sector One–the grandson of their Prophet, and the cousin of their leader. He escaped his responsibilities to come to Sector Four and the O’Kanes some time ago. Dylan is a doctor who used to work in Eden. He’s rather broken after being forced to help torture prisoners, and even now that he’s escaped to the sectors he gets high to escape his emotions and memories. Scarlet is a musician and street rat and Jade’s girlfriend. She doesn’t believe she has anything in common with the other three comparatively highly-placed people in our tale, but she’s strong and fierce and not afraid to go after what she wants. All of these four people have feelings for each other except perhaps Scarlet/Dylan. So far Scarlet isn’t very impressed with the good doctor. As our characters work to help the remaining people of Sector Two, Dallas plans for revolution against Eden itself. But Eden has its own events going down.

The connections between all four of the characters are wonderful. Even Scarlet and Dylan become close as the group gradually comes to accept that they all love one another. There are some gorgeous (and very explicit) sex scenes with all four characters in one bed, including m/f, f/f, and m/m sexual material. I did find that some of the descriptions in the foursome get a little confusing as to who did what or who moved where. They were a bit harder to picture than other Kit Rocha sex scenes.

I liked getting to see more of the religion of Sector One and how Mad fits into it. We also discover that not all of the Sector Two girls want out of their “calling”. And Eden isn’t the monolithic entity it seemed.

The plot progression is really taking shape. Someone poisons Mad. Dylan and Jade find themselves scouring Sector Two for survivors. Dylan is putting together a hidden hospital. Jade is finding new homes for the courtesans-in-training of Sector Two, and it looks like she’ll get roped into doing a lot more. Ashwin–Cruz’s highly dangerous contact inside Eden–finally comes looking for that favor he’s owed, and events inside Eden take some unusual turns.

This is a wonderful installment in the series, and I’m looking forward to more!

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Review: “Beyond Innocence,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Love the newer characters
Cons: A minor series quibble
Rating: 5 out of 5

Yes, I really did buy the full bundled set of Kit Rocha’s “Beyond” series, so here’s my review of Beyond Innocence (Beyond, Book 6). Jared is a high-class escort–high-society ladies from Eden pay him to make their fantasies come true, and he’s become very good at presenting that fantasy. Lili is the daughter of the former head of Sector Five, and she was trained to lock everything of herself away and present a different fantasy–one of the perfect hostess and wife. Her husband didn’t even care to have sex with her until he decided he wanted children; she was little more than a status symbol. Because of these backgrounds, both Jared and Lili have difficulty letting themselves go when Dallas throws one of his orgiastic parties. Then Finn, who had to watch as his boss in Sector Five abused Lili, asks Jared to help keep an eye on her. Lili has just run out of all the nice, numbing drugs she brought with her out of Five, and while they weren’t physically addictive, having to feel again is going to be hard on her. Before long Jared and Lili discover they have a lot in common. It’s true that where Jared is eminently experienced, Lili isn’t at all. But both of them need to learn to lay aside their masks and discover who they really are underneath. Muddling it all is the fact that Jared has just bought an illegal club inside of Eden so that he can better collect information for Dallas–a very dangerous new line of work for him.

I was hoping we’d get to see Lili again. Last we saw her, she’d put a bullet in her own bodyguard and made her way across two sectors to reach the O’Kanes. She helped O’Kane convince the other sector heads that he’d been right to blow away her husband (who took over Sector Five after Lili’s father was killed), and in return the O’Kanes have kept her safe. Now she wants more than just to be safe, but where to start? Jared makes her realize she can have more than just an existence, but those things she always thought of as her skills–hostessing and playing the perfect wife–aren’t of much use in O’Kane territory. She’s also still having a lot of trouble fitting in. She can’t bring herself to believe that the women actually enjoy all the sexual activity going on. She particularly can’t understand how Rachel is with two men at once. Jared is more than happy to introduce her to the idea that sex can bring pleasure, and it makes for hot reading. There’s even a fantastic bedroom scene with Jared, Lili, Rachel, Cruz, and Ace.

The plot is definitely heating up. Ashwin, one of Eden’s super-soldiers, seems to be even further on the O’Kane side of things, but no one knows why, and they can’t look past the fact that he’s extremely dangerous. He definitely has an agenda of his own. There’s also a councilman who might be reachable–it’s someone who isn’t corrupt, wonder of wonders. Unfortunately he also doesn’t particularly like the O’Kanes. You’ll just need to read this volume to find out how Jared manages his spying, and how much danger he and Lili end up in!

While I love the bisexual orgies, I would still like to see at least one coupling end up same-sex (other than the Cruz-Ace-Rachel triad). Otherwise it’s kind of starting to feel like the characters are only bisexual with respect to sex, and not so much emotions. As usual, there’s a lot of hot sex in here, including one of Dallas’s infamous parties!

She didn’t know if she wanted to do any of those things…
But now she knew she could.

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Ending the Imperfect Produce Experiment

It was a good experiment, one that I wrote about here and here. To recap: I figured that if I had a box of mixed produce showing up on my doorstep every week, it would make me cook with more veggies. It worked! The veggies were good quality (if, of course, imperfect), and there was a wide variety available. I could customize the box to get rid of any traces of onion-like crud. However, even the small veggie box was too much for me.

Now, the company has changed its moniker to “Imperfect Foods” because they now sell lots of stuff, including dairy and eggs and soon even meats. That would mean I could substitute in those items for some of the veggies and simply start doing my groceries this way. That’s a great idea but, some of the rest of their setup really doesn’t work entirely well for that. The advantage of the veggie boxes is that none of the foods in them would go bad if they sat around in the sun for an hour or two–necessary because there are limited delivery windows available in each area and you have to set them a bit in advance, so on any given week you might not be home. Also, I’ve had multiple occasions when the delivery driver dropped off my box an hour or two before the delivery window and didn’t send the text alerting me until the actual delivery window. I have to presume that’s because they don’t want the company being automatically alerted that the delivery was made outside the delivery window, but well, it also means that I can’t afford to get any of that dairy, eggs, or protein because I can’t risk having it sit out. (Yes, I did let the company know this had happened, although not every time, since some times weren’t as severe as others and, well, I prefer not to complain about the same thing over and over.)

I also don’t particularly want Imperfect Foods to substitute for my groceries. They’re unlikely to have everything I can get from Whole Foods anytime soon, and I don’t want to have to pay two delivery fees every week if I don’t have to. I also feel like now that I have some practice, I can be better about picking up enough veggies from the store without the prod.

I’m absolutely glad that I tried this out, but it clearly isn’t going to be a long-term thing for me. I also decided not to renew my Rotten Fruit Box subscription; I can get most of the same things from without the hugely long shipping time, and supplement with occasional one-time orders from the RFB when they have sales (which are often customer-only, so I’m glad I’m a customer!).

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Review: “Beyond Possession,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Love the newer characters
Cons: A minor series quibble
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Kit Rocha’s latest novella in her post-apocalyptic erotic romance series is Beyond Possession (Beyond, Novella 5.5) Zan recently got shot when Trix got kidnapped. He’s still recovering, so Dallas asks him to take on a mission that isn’t as physically challenging as busting heads. Dallas wants him to get close to Tatiana Stone, older daughter of the previous sector head (whom Dallas killed). There are whispers of rebellion in his sector, and it’s virtually certain that anyone who wants to overthrow Dallas will want the symbolism of having Tatiana on his side. Tatiana is a shopkeeper who sells lotions, oils, soaps, and candles. She’s trying to break into the market in Eden, but it isn’t easy. She’s also trying to protect her younger sister Catalina, who’s fallen in with Wallace, the would-be leader of the revolution. She knows what it means to fall for an O’Kane, and she doesn’t want to lose her independence, no matter how luxurious the accommodations would be. But there are definite sparks between her and Zan.

Now that we’re 5 novels and several novellas into this series, there are a couple of things I’ve noticed. One, although nearly all of the characters are bisexual, and there’s a decent amount of bisexual sex going on, the actual partnerings are rarely same-sex. The only counterexample so far is the Ace-Cruz-Rachel triad. I’d like to see at least one more same-sex pairing; the odds of all of these bisexuals ending up in hetero relationships just feels a little forced at this point. Two: wow, it’s amazing how many of these women are capable of many, many multiple orgasms! (Okay, that one isn’t really a complaint. It’s just kind of funny.)

Tatiana is a great character. She has an interesting background, more complicated than the “grew up on the streets” or “kicked out of Eden” background of other characters. She tries not to be too obviously pro-O’Kane because she’s afraid of her father’s old colleagues, and yet she also realizes O’Kane is a decent sector head and doesn’t want to do anything to stoke the feelings against him. Wallace is making this very hard for her through her sister, and he’s planning on making it harder still. I like that Tatiana is so independent and knows she’d wither as a “kept” woman. I did feel like the timeline (given Dallas has been sector head for a little while) would have made a bit more sense if she’d been a few years older (maybe closer to 30 than 20), but that’s a small quibble.

Since this is one of the novellas that seem to run along the side of the novels as a whole, there isn’t as much over-arching plot to this one–the little rebellion is fairly self-contained. This is an enjoyable tale, and I’m looking forward to seeing who gets paired up next!

There were always chains with the O’Kanes, even if they weren’t the literal kind.
Though those seemed to show up often enough, too.

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