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Reading with kids (3 to 8 years)

One of the advantages of being an uncle is that every time I purchase books for my nephew and niece, I get the pleasure of reading them first and then re-reading over and over when babysitting. You soon start to recognise the marks of a good quality piece of kids’ literature.

A positive moral or message, an imaginative narrative and a healthy dosage of kookiness, that’s the recipe for a successful kids’ book. Over the last few months I have begun to compile a list of favourites and the chosen titles are as follows:

5. DOG LOVES BOOKS by Louise Yates (3-6 years), Publisher: Cape.

dog loves books

A comical little tale about a dog who runs a book shop and finds that books are the key to other worlds.

4. CROC AND BIRD by Alexis Deacon (3-7 years), Publisher: Hutchinson.

croc and bird

Two eggs hatch side by side, a crocodile and a parrot. The creatures believe they must be brothers, a funny mismatch that celebrates diversity.

3. MR TIGER GOES WILD by Peter Brown (4-7 years), Publisher: Macmillan.

Mr tiger goes wild

A dapper tiger complete with a top hat and Edwardian dress embraces his inner feral animal and starts an alternatively natural trend.

2. ZERAFFA GIRAFFA by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Janne Ray (4-8 years), Publisher: Frances Lincoln.

ZERAFFA GIRAFFA

A beautifully illustrated true story about a giraffe sent from Egypt to a French King in the 1820s.

1. A CHILDREN’S TREASURY OF MILLIGAN by Spike Milligan (8-108 years), Publisher: Ebury

A Children's Treasury of Milligan

My four year-old nephew has a tendency to cantillate the Milligan poems at random. Limericks like:

There are holes in the sky where the rain gets in.
The holes are small, so rain is thin.

Or my particular favourite:

the pig
A very rash young lady pig
(They say she was a smasher)
Suddenly ran
Under a van-
Now she’s a gammon rasher.

Milligan’s’ scribblings are absolutely barking mad. Sentences of insanity highlighting an imaginative perspective of the world and all who sail in her.

I highly recommend these philosophical pieces of writing. They are guaranteed, I can assure you, to make any sadness in the heart rapidly dissipate.

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Conversations with Spirits by E O Higgins

Conversations with Spirits is one of those cracking reads that leave you sitting up into the small hours promising yourself ‘one more chapter then sleep’. On finishing it, you will want to buy copies for all your good friends, so that you can have long, spoiler-filled discussions of its merits. For they are many.

Trelawney Hart is a former child prodigy who spends his days trying to pickle his brain in cherry brandy in order to remove all traces of his lost wife. He seems an unlikely person for the creator of Sherlock Holmes to engage to investigate a spiritualist demonstration on the sands of Broadstairs in Kent, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does just that. The wrecked condition of Hart’s body makes it touch and go as to whether he will witness the denouement of his own story, as the reader is left to wonder if he will uncover some of what is going on before he coughs up a lung. Or two.

The tale is set in 1917, but the War hovers around like a London fog, influencing the characters without directly touching them. It is true that the massive loss of life did encourage a belief in spiritualists among the bereaved, as well as many ‘backroom shysters’ determined to prey on them for profit. And Trelawney is also haunted, the presence of his wife never far away:

It is far more painful to awake from a beautiful slumber and – in that brief period when the continuity of life is still lost to you – to reach across the bed for a hand that is not there.

So, have the years of drinking sufficiently dulled one of England’s most famous intellects to the point of being unable to unravel the facts? Will he be forced to admit that there are things in the world that logic alone can’t explain? Rest assured that even if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is picking up the (considerable) tab for the adventures, Trelawney won’t be able to resist little digs at his benefactor. The Hound of the Baskervilles one is priceless.

Published by Unbound, which allows readers to pledge to support the work of writers whose ideas resonate with them, the one question on every reviewer’s mind seems to be ‘WHEN DO WE GET TO READ THE SEQUEL?’ And, should Trelawney end his days face down in a pint of brandy – as seems somewhat possible – there are at least two ‘supporting’ characters who deserve spin-off tales of their own: there is surely more going on with den mother Sibella and reluctant sidekick Billy Crouse than has been revealed thus far.

ten minutes hate was lucky enough to be able to ask this and a few other impertinent questions to Mr E O Higgins himself.

conversations with spirits shelf

10mh: Conversations with Spirits is so amazingly good (thank you!) that you must be living the dream of fat advances, literary acclaim and a five star, jet set lifestyle. Was publishing everything you thought it would be?

Well, I don’t live in a massive gold house just yet, sadly – but being involved with Unbound has been lovely. They’re all very funny and charming and encouraging, which is nice.
And the moment I saw my book in Waterstones for the first time is something I will never forget…

10mh: Trelawney Hart is quite a character. Is it difficult to switch off his distinctive voice when your writing is done for the day and do you have a good cherry brandy supplier?

Trelawney is a bit of an arsehole, really – so I try not to get too lost in the part. I also don’t have the servants to put up with my rudeness (see previous answer), so that’s something I need to work on.
I had actually never tasted cherry brandy (Trelawney’s tipple of choice) before my book launch – but now I have, I won’t be imbibing again any time soon. It’s filthy stuff.

10mh: Was it fun taking a bit of a pop at Arthur Conan Doyle or has there been any retribution from Sherlock Holmes fans?

Yes, I get occasional angry reviews because of this.
I am actually a very big Conan Doyle fan myself, so I like to think it’s more of a good-natured ribbing, really.
I recently did a talk at the Edinburgh Literary Festival and the crowd there were surprisingly hostile to both myself and Steven Galloway, the writer I was sharing the platform with.
It turned out to be filled with members of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Society – a spiritualist organisation.
I had earlier referred to the mediums I had met – whilst researching my book – as ‘shysters’. So, it was quite a tough crowd.

10mh: Word reaches us that your research into spiritualism now extends to hosting séances. What would Trelawney say?

He would be appalled, naturally; if he wasn’t too pissed to care.
I don’t ‘do’ séances though – I did a single séance for Unbound, to help publicise the book.
Derek Acorah’s job’s safe – turns out, lying to the bereaved isn’t really my thing.

10mh: And what’s next, for creator and protagonist?

My wife is expecting our first child in a month, so I mainly foresee an instance of extreme panic, following by a period of changing nappies and missing sleep…
But the follow-up to Conversations with Spirits is (slowly) coming together. The plot has moved away from spiritualism and onto black magic, so I expect I’ll be upsetting devil worshippers soon enough.

Congratulations! Excellent and very welcome news.

If you haven’t already, search out a copy of Conversations with Spirits. And you can follow E O Higgins on Twitter for updates on when and where the follow-up will appear.

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Do not disturb: Welcome to Hotel Babylon

CHECK IN:

Last weekend, staying in my friend’s cottage in Sale, I had the luxury of being able to read the book Hotel Babylon into the wee small hours. The next day the tell-tale marks of reading late had taken its toll on my face. I had bags under my eyes like a spaniel’s ears. But it was worth it.

hotel-babylon-1

The manager of an exclusive luxury hotel (known as Anonymous) exposes the goings on in the trade. Imogen Edwards-Jones sculpts a career’s worth of experience and anecdotes from Mr. A into one action-packed day, told through the eyes of a ‘receptionist’. Each of the 24 chapters narrates the events of a single hour, from 7 am Friday to 7 am Saturday.

THE STAY:

It is a 24 hour trawl through the decadence, depravity and downright debauchery of the hotel industry. After paying an astronomically large fee for a room, guests feel this gives them an immediate licence to be rude and obnoxious. The polite, respectable citizen can be transformed into an ignoramus who thinks they can act however they choose.

Something strange occurs to guests as soon as they check in, even if in real life they are perfectly well-mannered, decent people with proper balanced relationships, as soon as they spin through the revolving hotel doors the normal rules of behavior no longer seem to apply.

The reader is taken absolutely everywhere in the hotel, from the reception area to the back offices, the exclusive bar, restaurant, kitchens and of course the varied rooms from the ludicrously extravagant to the over-priced boxes. It is a candid observation of what really goes on behind the painted smiles of sycophantic members of staff.

Lavish drug parties, calculating call girls, nude guests, massive telephone porn bills and bathtubs filled with Evian, it’s all here. The residents’ swimming in a lake of liquor, mounds of cocaine and unadulterated raw sex. The reader is plunged into a double shift crammed with outrageous incidents, requests and scandals. And the cast of characters are memorable, dictator-like chefs, cleaners curling up to catch a sneaky 40 winks, vamps, tramps and dead bodies.

CHECK OUT:

I would remind anybody who is tempted to try the ‘white worm’ – commonly called cocaine – to really think about snorting unknown powder. The so-called glamour of this drug is highlighted with the rock band who end up with diarrhea and have to wipe their bottoms on curtains once the paper has run out.

grand-hotel-poster

If you would like to spend more time in the world of the hotelier, I would recommend seeing the fabulous vintage film Grand Hotel. Further reading could include Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel published in 1902. This expose depicts what the staff and guests of a luxury establishment get up to.

Nothing much has really changed!

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From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Had I not read Emma Larkin’s wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma in 2013, I wouldn’t have gone looking for further reading and found a list of the author’s recommended books about the country. That would have meant I missed out on Pascal Khoo Thwe’s remarkable, lyrical story of a life that begins in the jungles of Burma before – after a few dizzying turns – depositing him in Cambridge’s hallowed atmosphere.

fromthelandofgreenghosts

Despite making bold promises to myself after compiling last year’s reading list, it has taken me close to two months to finish reading this book. Partly a change in available time is to blame, but also because there were passages that defy speeding through, rewarding repeated consideration and a slower pace. Carl Honoré would love it.

That pace is set by the author’s beginnings in tribal lands where the seasons dominate and everything is in tune with the life of the natural world around it. Some nods to modernity have been made, along with the tribe’s enthusiastic conversion to Catholicism, but the older ways operate alongside the new without too much anguish. Surprisingly – although perhaps less so when you learn more of what followed – the days of the British are remembered fondly. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s grandmother was even brought to London to be displayed as one of the ‘giraffe necked women’ and returned from the visit having enjoyed the ‘moving stairs’ that they didn’t need to climb, but full of complaints about the cold.

‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working… They say “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another.’

It is an enjoyable existence, one where uncles are supermen, playing for the town’s football team is the highest honour and wasps are a delicacy. Apart from that last one, it isn’t too far from my own. The dead remain in close proximity to the living, as in other parts of Asia. Death is not something to fear, but more a move to the next stage of life. These words from a funeral which was a blend of Catholic and traditional rites,

Well done, my boy. Well done, Peter Yew, for you have made us proud. You have finished your hunting. Enjoy being with our ancestors for ever; enjoy the banquet with them. They await you, and we will join you when the time comes. Meanwhile tell our ancestors about us, tell them to help us, and to protect us from the evil powers. Ask them to make our land fertile, to bring good weather and rains for us, to make our women fertile. Go my son, go, back to our ancestors. May your journey be gentle and your soul as bright as the stars.

That was one of the particular passages of the book that I read more than once. What better words could be said at the end of a life cut short but one that was lived well.

These ways which have endured for so long are not immediately threatened by the changes in Burma’s power structures as the military dictatorship takes hold slowly. The author’s grandfather and then his father are allowed to retain some vestiges of their tribal authority and so it is perhaps not until he reaches university, in a Mandalay so far off that it feels like another land altogether, that he begins to be exposed to the sufferings of other parts of his country. As a student he is advised to play the game and not question too much:

Remember what your grandfather said about the earth’s being round at school and flat at home. He was a wise man and taught you what you need to know in Burma. It is the same in politics… They may be as ignorant as peasants – but they have the guns. Never, never argue with them.

But he finds it increasingly difficult to engage in the doublethink which is needed to thrive in Burma. Even the university’s buildings, dating from Colonial times, impress upon him that at one point this place of learning sought to encourage an opening of minds and curiosity about the world that his generation is being denied. He is not the only one and, in 1988, protests sweep the country, starting with students before pulling in monks and ordinary people. The disappearance of his girlfriend in sinister circumstances shocks him off the sidelines and in to a more outspoken role, before eventually – inevitably – he is forced to flee for the relative ‘safety’ of the Thai border and the rebel fighters attacking government troops there.

And here this tale might have ended, by stray bullet or landmine, were it not for a chance meeting a few years earlier in a Mandalay restaurant with a Cambridge academic and a scrawled note which somehow reaches him. This contact catapults Pascal Khoo Thwe around the world, away from family, friends and comrades, and into the same misty cold that his grandmother had found so hard to bear. It is a heck of a journey and the reader almost has to keep reminding herself that Thwe is only recounting his first couple of decades.

Learning English and studying for a literature degree are colossal feats in their own rights, becoming a writer who can tell such a captivating tale in so creative and descriptive a manner is another. Mosquitoes are like ‘flying grape-pips blushing with human blood,’ and when he heads into the mountainous jungle, scenes of ‘cool-season flowers, ranging from… varieties of orchid to small white and purple bush-flowers,’ are interrupted by burnt-out villages.

It was a countryside that the hand of war had several times touched.

From his tribal childhood, to gaining maturity during the uprisings before heading to Cambridge, Pascal Khoo Thwe has lived more than one life, none of which I had much experience of. It’s a testament to his faith in ‘freedom and love of life’ that he was able to survive and to record such events not in a flat recounting, but in a tale that lives and breathes with the vitality and character of its writer.

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A bloody canvas

Pierre Lemaitre was awarded the 2013 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger for his first outing in crime fiction, Alex.

pierre lemaitre

The follow-up, Irene, sees Commandant Camille Verhoeven – his dwarf hero and main protagonist – married and about to become a father. His life is a long sought after one of ease. The story opens with a murder of unprecedented savagery. The author is unrelenting in his description of the macabre crime scene. This is not a spoiler alert but a warning to the squeamish amongst readers.

When they arrive at a crime scene, rookie officers unconsciously look around for death. Experienced officers look for life. But there was no life here; death had leached into every space, even the bewildered eyes of the living.

The French writer paints a picture and it is a gore-ridden massacre, not so much on a small detailed canvas, more of a bold brash bloody mural. The killer’s signature style is to pay homage to the classic crime novels. The gutter press, one suspects the French equivalent of The Daily Fail or The Scum, quickly label him the Novelist.

The tale soon becomes a personal duel between Verhoeven and the sick murderer. It is a credit to translator Frank Wynne for he transfers this piece of writing from the French into a succinct and exceptionally well written piece of crime fiction.

IRENE

What works about this gripping and intelligent story is the clever plot that weaves dark and comic scenes into a tapestry of realistic terror that surreptitiously wraps around the reader, attempting to choke. You share the sense of urgency with Camille and his team, to catch this serial psycho and stop him recreating tableaus from the pages of crime novels. It is an enthralling read and clearly written by a crime aficionado, as the author himself declares,

Since I owe almost everything I am to literature, it felt natural to begin by writing a novel which was a homage to crime fiction.

I recognised the first murder but could not think were from until informed it was from the cult classic, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

AmericanPsychoBook

Le Maitre explains,

American Psycho was a tremendous shock to the reading public. Bret Easton Ellis raises so many moral questions with such intelligence, such skill. Though not considered a crime novel, this defining work deftly addresses readers’ ambiguity towards the very violence which is an essential, ‘pleasure’ of crime fiction. Yet many criticised the visceral brutality in American Psycho, as though the purpose of such fiction is to exercise our hyper-violent societies, but to remain within ‘reasonable limits’.

Simply, this is a pulp crime novel taken to another level. It does not leave a temporary fixture on the imagination, like some throwaway novels in this genre, so much as a dark imposing stain.

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Naomi’s Room

We have all been there, so it’s not hard to conjure up the scenario. A bustling Saturday shopping afternoon, you try to manoeuvre yourself through the lagoon of people who bash past oblivious to anyone in their pathway. Basic manners and people skills: clearly two lessons that were eradicated from their upbringing. People who were not brought up, but rather brought down.

You clasp tight hold of the child’s hand by your side. But being an infant, this is no ordinary day, no day is ever ordinary when you are three or four. It’s a world of imaginative possibilities. An escalator is a runway to a sci-fi alien world, a conveyor belt to the land of robots. A discarded take away box is a trunk of treasure and then there are all the neon flashing distractions of window displays and other excitements.

You may lose your grip for a fraction of a second, look down and he or she is still there, look away and then back and the kid has vanished, gone! This is every adult who is responsible for a child’s absolute nightmare. Because adults know the darkness of the world we inhabit. In that fleeting moment, the amygdala does not just hijack the brain, it tortures it.

Generally a few seconds later the child re-appears, you catch sight of him or her and your heart returns back to its normal rhythm. You shout, an almost roar, out of sheer panic about wandering off and how it is naughty or some other disdainful reprimand. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just words, noise expressing your inner fear. And equilibrium is restored.

But what happens if the child does not re-appear?

This is precisely the dilemma that Jonathan Aycliffe throws at his reader in the beginning of the short tale of terror NAOMI’S ROOM. From the onset he establishes his tale in the land of comfortable academia. It’s domestic bliss with Charles, the main protagonist, aged 30, his wife Lucy, 26, and their daughter Naomi who is 4.

It’s a world of possibilities,

Your life seems so directed when you are thirty.

Charles is a published promising academic, with an acclaimed piece on Gawain and the Green Knight. The loving couple and their daughter live a charmed life and the action starts with the two prepping for Naomi’s first proper Christmas. Taking Naomi on a trip to London, on Christmas Eve, her mood is one of excitement.

Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious.

This picturesque idyll is not so much shattered as completely decimated when Naomi goes missing.

Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

Each chapter is crafted to keep you reading on with a suspenseful final paragraph. This tale is in the style of supernatural masters like M.R. James and Susan Hill. The sadistic style of writing that is unflinching in its descriptions, slashes the canvas of comfort and provides an engrossing narrative. It is horror writing at its best, suspenseful, chilling and occasionally gruesome.

I’d say you know it’s a captivating tale when you open the envelope it came in as you come home from a solid day of graft and decide to look at the first paragraph to realise you are 80 pages in and the last hour or two has gone by. It was only when I finished NAOMI’S ROOM that I actually looked at the cover in greater detail. Thankfully, I had not given it a glance as on reflection this could have put me off, a naff superimposed stock image of a spooky child clutching a doll over a staircase was about as sinister as athlete’s foot, but I guess that depends on the severity of the foot ailment!

naomis-room

If like me you choose to read this tale in a room of your own, I can guarantee that when you bed down in the evening, a light of sorts will have to be turned firmly on somewhere in sight of the naked eye. You will hope that the mind does not decide to work overtime and you will hope that Madam Sleep wrestles you quickly into unconsciousness.

It does amaze me the fixation that society seems to have with fictional horror and crime. The world is crammed with gruesome realities from IS to UKIP, yet we still have an innate fascination with atrocities from watching hangings in Elizabethan times to reading penny dreadful novels in Victorian days, the 1970’s slasher flicks to the bordering-on-snuff films of the SAW franchise.

Perhaps we are all just twisted souls?

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A year in books – 2014 – J. C. Greenway

Like my good pal, Mr Maguire, I have taken a more systematic approach to reading this year by making a reading plan. It wasn’t too exact, reckoning on two books a month and allowing for other discoveries by only planning for 10 months instead of 12. It sounds unbelievably dull, but as it paid off in an extra 15 books read this year, it might become a permanent feature! Access to free, out of copyright downloads means that I read more ebooks this year. They are just too convenient to avoid these days, however strong the preference for the turning of an actual page.

stack-of-booksWhile putting this plan down on paper, I decided that I wanted to read more from outside the ‘dead, white, European male’ perspective which so often makes up my reading. As this year started as the last ended, with a whole bunch of classy spy novels, this wasn’t altogether successful, but the effort will continue when planning next year’s books. I also want to read more works in translation, to disprove that theory that English-speaking readers won’t touch such books. Also this year I was lucky enough to get an offer of free downloads from the website Unbound, which introduced me to many new writers as well as a new way of publishing books.

Here is my list of books read in 2014, with links to reviews written along the way, as well as some further thoughts following. In chronological order, I read this year:

  1. Mike and Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse
  2. Psmith in the City, P. G. Wodehouse
  3. Crying Just Like Anybody: A Fiction Desk Anthology
  4. A Murder of Quality, John le Carré
  5. The Looking Glass War, John le Carré
  6. My Name Is Loco and I am a Racist, Baye McNeil
  7. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  9. Under Fire, Henri Barbusse
  10. Piggy Monk Square, Grace Jolliffe
  11. Down the Figure 7, Trevor Hoyle
  12. These Turbulent Times, Paul Tomkins
  13. I’m The One, Miha Mazzini (short story)
  14. A Game With Sharpened Knives, Neil Belton
  15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  16. Burmese Days, George Orwell
  17. Jew Boy, Simon Blumenfeld
  18. The Interpreters, Ben Anderson
  19. A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Road Home, Rose Tremain
  21. Our Game, John le Carré
  22. The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham
  23. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
  24. The Lighthouse, Alison Moore
  25. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth
  26. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre
  27. Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
  28. Elephant Moon, John Sweeney
  29. Salt & Old Vines, Richard W. H. Bray
  30. F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice, Miranda Ward
  31. Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler
  32. The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré
  33. Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford
  34. The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing
  35. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
  36. Conversations With Spirits, E. O. Higgins
  37. Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard
  38. Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway

Looking at my list, it seems that I didn’t do too well at #readwomen2014, with just seven women appearing. The inter-war period still seems to be my favourite, with 14 books either being written or set in the Twenties and Thirties. It is going to take a more concerted effort next year to break away from the old, dead, European men.

Some highlights this year were set very close to home, with Piggy Monk Square by Grace Jolliffe and Trevor Hoyle’s Down The Figure 7 offering two completely different perspectives on growing up in the North of England. Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld contrasted with and provoked thought as well as Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Spy novels remain a pleasure, so it was engrossing to pick up Ben Macintyre’s tale of the real-life mole in our midst, Kim Philby. Miranda Ward’s book – part manifesto, part memoir – of making it or not in the music and other creative industries prompted much highlighting and scribbling in notebooks. Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins was a triumph, taking on spiritualism and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it should be read by all.

Despite its World War II setting, nods to Orwell and plucky heroine, I couldn’t warm to Elephant Moon by John Sweeney. It had all the right ingredients and should have been a cracking tale, but felt far too slow to me. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is undoubtably the work of a skilled writer, but I disliked her characters so much it was difficult to spend time with them.

When it comes to picking a best book of the year, there really is only one candidate. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was unlike anything else, written in an edited version of Old English and rewarding the dedicated reader with a finely woven and masterfully rendered story. Language and narrative both perfectly combined. The writer announced that this is planned to be the first of a trilogy, which is very happy news and something to look forward to placing on a future list.

So, how about you? How did you get on and which were your favourite reads of the year?

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