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PRIDE WEEK: Contemporary Recommendations from Sunita

If you’re interested in reading one of the three books I discuss below, post in the comments with your own favorite LGBT contemporary romance (or why you’re interested in reading one of these, if you don’t yet have a favorite), and you’ll be entered to win. Giveaway ends at 4AM EST on Sunday.

When Dear Author decided to take note of Pride Week with posts about essential books in the LGBT romance genre, I knew I wanted to write about contemporaries. Not only are they my favorite subgenre in gay romance, they range across a variety of topics, settings, characterizations and levels of sexual explicitness. I have read mysteries, workplace novels, sports romances, small-town settings, the list goes on and on. But, as we have discussed earlier this week and at many other times, all this variety is partitioned away from mainstream romance, analogous to the way romance is partitioned from other fiction, wholly because of the sexual orientations of the protagonists.

When I read an m/m romance that really resonates with me and that I think is of high quality, I play a mental game: if this book weren’t centrally about a romance between two men and didn’t contain sex scenes between those men (and didn’t have a happy ending), how would it be characterized? In other words, if we didn’t segregate romance generally and m/m romance specifically, and we were talking about this book, where would we locate it? The three books I’m talk about here, I would argue, are very much like books outside the romance genre, and indeed, they would be excellent choices for a “romance conversion kit.” To me they demonstrate that the best books in our genre are of really high quality and the walls that surround it are both unnecessary and artificial.

Fair Game by Josh LanyonMy first book is Fair Game, by Josh Lanyon. This is one of the first dozen or so m/m books I read, the second book I reviewed at Dear Author, and one of my Top 10 reads of 2010. I was immediately taken with the concise, understated writing style. It felt almost effortless to read. This book has remained a favorite, dozens and dozens of novels later. I’m a sucker for grown-up characters, and Elliot and Tucker are both in their thirties, comfortable with their sexuality and their lives. They are estranged, but they still have feelings for each other. When a college student disappears on the campus where Eliot teaches, Tucker shows up in his official capacity and they’re thrown together again. The mystery and the romance unfold in tandem, and the book is exemplary in balancing these two threads.

The campus setting and the academic characterizations are pitch-perfect. The book opens with Elliot teaching his history class and thinking about his students the way they appear on the class roster: Mrachek, Leslie and Sandusky, John. Lanyon had me at that last-name-first detail. And it took me two-thirds of the book before I realized that Eliot was a pretty unreliable narrator. He is so charming and witty that I didn’t twig to the fact that Tucker was actually the more sympathetic character.

The only thing that differentiates Fair Game from well-regarded, mainstream mysteries is that the romance is m/m rather than m/f. It’s a serial killer plot, there are plenty of red herrings, and it’s difficult to figure out whodunit (although when you go back the clues are all there). It needed a slightly longer word count to tie up all the loose ends, but this novel easily holds its own with any medium-gritty mystery of similar length. The romance is really satisfying and the sex scenes, while subtle, are integral to advancing both the plot and the romantic relationship. One of my favorite mystery series is the Charles Paris series by Simon Brett, and Fair Game reminds me of Brett’s books in terms of its wit, humor, and quality of writing.

Regularly Scheduled Life, by K.A. MitchellMy second book is Regularly Scheduled Life, by K.A. Mitchell, which Joan/Sarah reviewed here at Dear Author. This is a straight (well, not straight) contemporary which employs a storyline we see regularly in literary fiction, what I term the “before and after” novel. The author introduces characters who are leading contented, somewhat predictable lives, and then something exogenous to their relationship occurs that upends those lives and introduces change and uncertainty. In this case, Sean and Kyle have been together six years and are still crazy about each other. When Sean is injured in a school shooting, there’s no question for either man that their relationship is strong enough to withstand the shock. But even though they both still love each other, the aftermath of the shooting and the different ways in which each reacts to the changes that ensue slowly drive them apart. There’s no bad guy in this (okay, there’s Sean’s PR guy, Brandt, I hated him with a passion); instead, the ways in which Sean and Kyle are unable to resolve their conflicts feels organic and painfully familiar, and while there is ultimately a happy ending, it takes them a lot of work to get there.

Unlike Fair Game, Regularly Scheduled Life has a ton of torrid sex scenes (and a few emotionally uncomfortable ones). But these scenes are crucial to understanding Sean, Kyle, and their relationship. Sex is an incredibly important part of their life together, it’s one of the key ways in which they communicate, and it reflects their good times and not-so-good times. You can’t remove those scenes and still have the same book. This aspect makes my mental exercise a bit more difficult to pull off, because there aren’t many literary or mainstream works of fiction where the sex is as frequent or as explicit (never mind the same-sex issue). But if we didn’t segregate by heat level (which is a whole different conversation), this book would sit squarely next to novels like Before and After, by Rosellen Brown (which was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson).

Tigers and Devils, by Sean KennedyMy third book is Tigers and Devils, by Sean Kennedy. I found this book in a list of recommended sports-themed m/m romances. I love sports, and this is set in the exotic (to me) world of Australian Rules Football. Simon Murray is the director of a small, well-regarded film festival and a football fanatic. Declan Tyler is a star football player on Simon’s favorite team. Much to Simon and his friends’ surprise, the gorgeous and popular Declan falls in love with Simon (who of course falls in love right back). In the course of the book, Declan comes out of the closet with all the ramifications you can imagine. The course of their relationship does not run smoothly, but there is a happy ending and a lot of fun scenes involving football (both players and fans).

I’ve described Tigers and Devils to other readers as Nick Hornby meets Shaun of the Dead, not because there are zombies (that’s a different Sean Kennedy book!), but because the novel combines Hornby’s keen insights about men with an understanding of the importance of friendship and community. Both Simon and Declan are embedded in strong networks of friends and family, and part of the pleasure of the book is watching how they relate to each other’s networks. It feels very authentic, unlike so many romances in which the protagonists are isolated from others.

This book is the most uneven of the three in terms of technical proficiency; it drags a bit in the middle, and it would have been much stronger had it been about 25 percent shorter. But the first half of the novel is just amazing, as good as anything you’ll read in romance or mainstream fiction, and it is well worth persevering to the end. When I first read it, I couldn’t stop saying to myself (both internally and out loud), “I can’t believe how good this is.” Kennedy’s voice in this book is the kind that authors dream of having and readers dream of finding; it swept me into the story and made me fall in love with everything about it. There are no tricks or manipulations, despite the potentially sensational nature of the plot, just people you care about and are sorry to let go when the book ends.

There are many other good contemporary novels within gay romance, but these are special to me because together they represent the range and quality that readers can find in the genre today. They’re imaginative, well written, rewarding reads, and they can hold their own with any fiction out there. When I compare them to mainstream fiction, I do not intend to suggest that they are somehow different from other romance novels and more like non-romance fiction. Instead, I’m thinking of what Gloria Steinem said when she turned 50 and someone tried to compliment her by suggesting she looked younger than her age. Her response: “This is what 50 looks like.” These books are what good romance looks like.

Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes.

38 Comments

  1. Cris
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 09:15:05

    I’m not entering to win any of the books since I’ve read two and have the third in my TBR pile, but I wanted to second that Fair Game (or any Josh Lanyon book for that matter) and Tigers and Devils are both FANTASTIC books.

    I also recommend Driftwood by Harper Fox (again, ANY Harper Fox book is worth reading if you like your heart ripped out, stomped on, and put back all bruised but happy). Also highly recommended are Amy Lane’s books – especially The Locker Room.

    Happy Pride Week!!

  2. Corina
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 09:31:50

    I’ll be excitedly revisiting this comment section regularly for recommended reads! Of the three recommended, I’ve read only Fair Game (which was excellent) but the other two are already in my TBR pile (so don’t enter me in the giveaway thanks). A book I’d like to recommend is Drawn Together by Z.A. Maxfield. I really adored the almost fair tale-like story and characters.

  3. M Jules Aedin
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 09:38:13

    You realize what you’ve done now, yes? Now I’m going to have to LIVE with Kennedy after this. THANKS, SUNITA. ;)

    Also, Regularly Scheduled Life gave me ulcers. Maybe not literal ones, but my stomach actually hurt while I was reading that book. I was so emotionally invested and so devastated by everything that went wrong. I forced myself to re-read it at some point and was surprised to find that it didn’t stress me out nearly as much the second time around. I’m still less likely to re-read it than any other Mitchell book, though. *laugh*

    (Not entering to win, just ftr.)

  4. LG
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 09:41:58

    I’ve only recently started to read more m/m romance (I made a list of authors/titles based on comments on a DA post and went from there). I’ve already tried Josh Lanyon and love his stuff so far, so I figure I’ll end up getting Lanyon’s book on my own eventually. Of the other two, the one I think I’d most like to read is K.A. Mitchell’s. Sean Kennedy was one of the authors on that list I put together for myself, but I’ve read the descriptions of several of his books and haven’t yet found one that appeals to me enough to want to try it.

  5. LG
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 09:47:08

    @Corina: Ooh, yes, I loved Drawn Together. I’ve got some of Z.A. Maxfield’s other books on my TBR pile but haven’t gotten around to them yet.

    I recently read Jet Mykles’ A Rose is a Rose and liked that, although less because of the romance and more because I liked the main character.

  6. jmc
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 10:27:14

    It always tickles me to hear/read that others love Tigers & Devils, which was my “Best Book of the Year” when it was released — it’s a keeper for me, despite the clunky pacing of the second half of the book and the need for some editing. I keep an eye out for more from Kennedy. Have you tried his steampunk/fantasy, Wings of Equity (I think that’s the title)?

  7. G. J. Patterson
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 11:00:06

    I was pleased, both as an avid reader and an aspiring writer, to see that you took on the conundrum of writing LGBT fiction that is so central: the fiction is as good as any “mainstream” romance or mystery or western, etc., and yet it is relegated to a separate (and not equal) category. It also disturbs me that it seems automatically to wind up in the “erotica” bin – no matter what it’s heat.

  8. Sunita
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 11:52:13

    @jmc: I liked Wings of Equity but I didn’t love it; it’s nice but I wasn’t as taken with the voice. I quite enjoyed I Fell in Love with A Zombie, as well as the short in Petit Morts 2 (both of which you’ve read, I think). I have his co-authored book in the TBR.

    @M Jules Aedin: Same here on RSL. The first time I read it was a huge rollercoaster ride, and not always a pleasant one. But it was so gripping. The second time I was more prepared and enjoyed it more. I still hate Brandt, though. :-)

    Thanks for the recs, and keep them coming!

  9. Sirius
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 12:22:17

    Don’t enter me in the giveaway, I have these three books, LOVE Fair game and Tigers and Devils. I mean, Fair game is Lanyon at his best, and I could not even guess the villain before he was revealed and the ending is with a little bit more tenderness than his usual, usually while I like where he stops, I still want another page :)

    And Tigers and Devils, OMG every time somebody tells me that romance needs a lot of sex scenes to succeed I point to this book.

  10. ShellBell
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 13:42:38

    Please don’t enter me in the giveaway either – I have all 3 eBooks. Thoroughly enjoyed them! I second the recommendations of Amy Lane’s The Hurt Locker and Jet Mykles’ A Rose is a Rose. I also loved Anah Crow and Dianne Fox’s One Real Thing, Marie Sexton’s Strawberries For Dessert (part of a series), Scarlet Blackwell’s Rescue Me, ZA Maxfield’s The Long Way Home, JB MacDonald’s By Degrees, TA Chase’s Shades of Dreams and Ashlyn Kane’s American Love Songs – just a couple of my favourites!

  11. Frekki
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 13:57:10

    I’ve just started reading m/m romances based on some of the reviews I read here, and I’ve been really enjoying them. I’d be most interested in the Sean Kennedy book. I have the Lanyon in my TBR pile, and I’m working my way through KA Mitchell’s backlist. I also love ZA Maxfield’s Drawn Together and Crossing Borders.

    Another new favorite author is JL Merrow, especially the novella Pricks and Pragmatism. I liked that one of the characters was a shy nerdy engineer, and there was no makeover involved, they fell in love with each other just as they were.

  12. cs
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 14:08:15

    Excellent recommendations. I definitely thought Lanyon upped his game in (ha) Fair Game. I find a lot of his work the same old. Not to dismiss his writing which is superb, but after the Adrien English series – Fair Game (for me) was up to that standard.

    RSL is a beautiful book.

    Tigers and Devils is also an excellent book. I’ve not enjoyed much of the authors other shorter stories. I’m hoping for something as good as this one soon :)

  13. sula
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 14:59:19

    All of these sound really great. I’ve read a lot of Josh Lanyon’s work and don’t think I’ve ever run across a book of his that I didn’t like. The Mitchell book would probably give me heartburn…I get very emotionally attached to couples going through relationship difficulties. The Kennedy book is probably the most intriguing to me, simply because I’m not familiar with the author and I love the idea of an m/m novel set in the world of sports. Thanks for the recommendations!

  14. Lindsey
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 15:53:18

    My favorite m/m contemporary romance would have to be K.A. Mitchell’s No Souvenirs. I love the characters, and love that we get to see characters from her previous novels.

    Tigers and Devils sounds excellent, though then again, I also have yet to take the plunge and read Regularly Scheduled Life (I’ve heard it’s very emotionally ehausting, and I’ve not yet been in a place where I’m looking for that in a romance) I’d be content to win either. I’ve read Fair Game, which I absolutely loved, but have yet to branch into more of Lanyon’s work.

  15. Joopdeloop
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 16:21:12

    No contemp fave but would love to try these recommendations (and/or see a thoughtful writer take on some of the topics in the recent NYT Magazine article “my ex-gay friend” – 180 from HEA, but raises fascinating and complicated questions about love, desire identity, family, mortality… Somehow my heart is already breaking for this guy)

  16. Joanna Chmabers (Tumperkin)
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 16:36:36

    I read Fair Game last week and agree with all you say. Tucker was a wonderful character in the way he grew in the reader’s eyes in sympathy.

    Otherwise, I find myself echoing others’ comments. Love Harper Fox’s books, esp. Driftwood and Life After Joe. Alex Beecroft’s Shining In the Sun. JL Merrow’s Pricks & Pragmatism and ZA Maxfield’s The Pharoah’s Concubine.

  17. chanceofbooks
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 17:16:30

    I would love to read any of these! My favorite m/m romance which has become one of my absolute favorite romances period is Promises by Marie Sexton. I also really like her new release, Of Sinners & Saints. Loved K.A.Mitchell’s Diving in Deep as well.

  18. Lynn S.
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 18:23:51

    I have the Lanyon book in my TBR (I love a good mystery), both you and Sarah make me want to try K.A. Mitchell, but your appealing review has me saying pretty please to a copy of Tigers and Devils. I’m starting to think of you as your own one woman conversion kit. If you like a book, your review makes it hard to resist.

    I also like the way that you voiced something that concerns me as well. I think of it as the genrefication of fiction and it bothers me. My library has divisions for fiction, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, children/young adult, and nonfiction which is categorization enough for me. I’m a reader, I like to read, and I can tell from reading the cover copy whether the book might be of interest. I can understand the need for an advisory regarding sexual content but the rampant division and subdivision by the industry is like a science experiment gone wrong and I’m not sure that genre classifications steer people towards what they want as much as they steer them away from what they’re afraid to try. Nothing wrong with saying these books are what good fiction looks like.

  19. Kerensa
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 19:29:41

    I would love to read FAIR GAME – I just finished my first Lanyon read (a historical novella – SNOWBALL IN HELL) and loved it! I would love to read more from him.

    A book I’d recommend is another K.A. Mitchell, that is one of my favorite books of all time, across all genres: LIFE, OVER EASY. I can’t even really articulate why this book is so good. It just is. It’s believable, it’s emotional, it’s well-written. Those all sound very trite, and don’t do it justice. It’s just another fabulous book from a great author (and this was the one that started it all for me). /*end gush*/

  20. Tam
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 22:03:48

    The only one of those I haven’t read is the Lanyon one, although I HAVE read many books by Josh. I cried in KA’s and adored Sean’s. Excellent choices.

    I don’t think I could pick a fave. So many good ones, James Buchanan’s Good Thief and the Inland Empire series are faves of mine. Also ZA Maxfield’s Crossing Borders is one of my favourites.

  21. Stephanie K.
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 23:54:07

    I’d love to read Regularly Scheduled Life by K.A. Mitchell. Some LGBT contemporaries that I’ve enjoyed are the Adrien English series by Josh Lanyon, I Spy Something Bloody by Josh Lanyon, Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest, and Lonely Hearts Club by Radclyffe.

  22. Kaetrin
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 03:04:24

    I’m not entering the giveaway either as I’ve read and loved all 3 books. Regularly Scheduled Life is my very favourite KA Mitchell (so far).

    I’ve also read all 3 of the books recommended by Sarah – although Uneven wasn’t quite the success for me – a little too much violence (consensual) for my romantic tastes as it turns out.

    Happy Pride week everyone. :)

  23. miz_geek
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 07:26:29

    These three have been on my list of the next LGBT contemporaries to try. I’ve read most of K.A. Mitchell’s other stuff and really enjoyed it, although I’ve been avoiding Regularly Scheduled Life, because it sounds so intense. Just finished Hard Fall after Monday’s recommendation. Enjoyed it – one of the things I like about m/m romance is that the characters are different from me. Well, the Mormon hero is VERY different from me.

  24. heather
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:04:25

    I would like to try some of KA Mitchell’s novels. I really like Marie Sexton and Chris Owens for M/M. Promises was my first M/M novel and I am upset it took me so long to find this genre!

  25. Sunita
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:32:45

    Great recommendations, everyone! For those of you who liked Fair Game, I strongly recommend Lanyon’s newest stand-alone, Come Unto These Yellow Sands. I reviewed it earlier this month here.

  26. Steven
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:36:38

    My favorite contemporary m/m romance is one I had difficulty labeling as a romance because like Fair Game there was SO much to the story besides the fact that the two men were gay and in love. The book is Selfish & Perverse by Bob Smith. I’ve posted this novel in every recommendation comment on the blogs I follow in hopes that someone will pick it up. Selfish & Perverse is super subtle in it’s approach of commentary on gay culture, and the length is perfect for tying up all loose ends. The minor characters had so much life that I almost wish he would go on to write them their own full stories.

    While I want to read all of these books, Fair Game has been on my TBR list since the Smart Bitches DABWAHA fest and I haven’t had the chance to buy it yet. I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews for both Josh Layton and K.A. Mitchell! Regardless of whether or not I win I’ll probably have to read all of the books just to satisfy my interest.

  27. Becky
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:54:56

    I keep hearing such good things about Tigers and Devils; I think that’s the one I’m most interested in reading. I’ve already read (and enjoyed) Fair Game, and Regularly Scheduled Life sounds like heavier reading than I’m up for right now.

    Some of my favorite contemps are Strawberries For Dessert by Marie Sexton, Hell by Jet Mykles, The Happy Onion by Ally Blue, and Faith & Fidelity by Tere Michaels. I was also completely blown away by The Girl For Me by Failte, which features a transgendered teen.

  28. Cathy MacDonald
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 11:25:39

    Chris Owen got me hooked on m/m stories with Bareback and 911.

    Would love a chance to read Regularly Scheduled Life.

    caity_mack at yahoo dot com

  29. Rossy
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 12:05:05

    I have to agree on Tigers and Devils. A good example that a book can be good even without too much sex. I plan on reading RSL, because it has received really good recommendations.

    I would recommend The Locker Room by Amy Lane, or Between Sinners and Saints by Marie Sexton. Finished both of these recently, and have yet to find another book that can match such a story.

  30. Rossy
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 12:11:47

    @heather: You should try Keeping Promise Rock by Amy Lane. What a wonderful ride!

  31. Rossy
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 12:14:07

    @Becky: I’ll second your recommendation for The Girl For Me by Failte. If you want a book about TGs, then this would be the perfect story to read. I loved it!

  32. Leela Lou Dahling
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 12:51:42

    I am pretty new to this genre I started off with Pinky Swear by Lynn Lorenz, I thought it was well written and emotional (my favorite ingredient for any book).

    Then I found K.A. Mitchell when she released her newest book called Bad Company and I am hooked. I am working my way through her backlist but I don’t know if I have Regularly Scheduled Life. All of her books have components that I would love in any book, unrequited love, history of any kind, etc. All I know is with the emotional component and the heat level and consistantly good story she has earned herself a new fan. My favorite story of hers, I can’t really pick one so it would be a tie between Diving in Deep and Life, Over Easy. I am reading Collision Course now so who knows it may be a 3 way tie :)

    I have read Man, Oh Man writing M/M fiction for kinks & cash which was spectacularly informative, but I haven’t read Fair Game or the other two books listed, so I would love to be entered in the giveaway.

    Happy Pride Week and Congratulations New Yorkers for now and hopefully for everyone else soon.

  33. MeganS
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 19:58:33

    I recently reread Tigers and Devils. I was hesitant about picking it up again, because I LOVED the book the first time around but I was already aware of its weaknesses (I tend to like my books more tightly structured, and I did think I wanted to read Declan’s POV too). But all hesitation disappeared as soon as I started reading. I enjoyed rereading it so, so much. It’s really a story to fall into, with friendships and workplaces and relationships that feel real. And this time around, I was actually more convinced that it was a good choice to keep it strictly in Simon’s first-person POV. Being in Simon’s head, with his engaging and thoughtful and silly and fun and unfiltered voice, is a major part of why the book’s so enjoyable.

    So, yes, it’s my favorite contemporary GLBT romance. :) I mean to get around to both Josh Lanyon and K.A. Mitchell soon!

  34. Corina
    Jun 26, 2011 @ 22:35:59

    @Becky: I have to thank you for your recommendation for Faith & Fidelity. I downloaded it to my Kindle this afternoon and, well, it’s now 9:30 and I’m trying to stop myself from immediately downloading the two sequels. This thread is really freaking bad for my bank account and productivity level.

  35. Loreen
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 01:10:16

    Just out of curiosity, is M/M romance a lot more popular than F/F romance? I cannot remember ever having read a review of a lesbian romance on this website, so I am wondering if the genre exists and is thriving?
    Is the difference that “straight” women read M/M but not F/F? This whole subject really intrigues me…

  36. Josephine Myles
    Jun 27, 2011 @ 15:20:54

    I love Tigers and Devils and all of K.A. Mitchell’s work (although I didn’t find RSL an easy read). Thanks for drawing my attention to Fair Game – I’m slowly working my way through Josh’s backlist, so I’ll definitely be purchasing that one next :D

    I do love a contemporary m/m romance, done well, and K.A. Mitchell, Marie Sexton, Ethan Day, Heidi Cullinan and Z.A. Maxfield have written some of my favourites.

  37. Raining On the Parade
    Jun 28, 2011 @ 11:02:38

    I’m glad to see such an interest in non-hetronormative romances at Dear Author but there are also other minorities/subgenres.

    Where is the African American romance novel during Black History Month? Or Latino romances during National Hispanic Heritage? Or romance with strong women leads (not necessarily kickass women but women who are actually the story leads) during Women’s History month? And so on…

    I’m not at all opposed to Gay Pride Week or the other wonderful segments Dear Author has done; however, I’m starting to feel like I’m being hit over the head with Gay Pride when there is no similar efforts made on any other minority segments. I don’t begrudge any of the contributor’s choices but perhaps it is time to purposefully add additional contributors who could target or represent some of those other subgenres.

  38. Jayne
    Jun 30, 2011 @ 13:14:28

    @Raining On the Parade: Check out 2 of my past Feburary Friday Film Reviews: “Brown Sugar” and “Something New.”

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