a pair of reviews // seas, ships, and some very mixed results

That’s right folks, this week on the blog, you get not one but two reviews! These are both books I read in the spring and have meant to review for ages, and both feature seas and ships – though as you’ll see, the combination is approached very differently by each.

Salt to t28103790he Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Puffin
Publication date: February 2 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Category: YA

Salt to the Sea weaves together multiple alternating viewpoints as the lives of four teenagers – Florian, Joana, Emilia and Alfred – briefly converge during one of the most catastrophic moments in maritime history: the boarding of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 off the coast of what is now Poland. Florian and Joana are stand-out characters, their courage and instinct for survival also yielding tremendous acts of kindness and companionship.

Serious, sombre and gut-wrenching, Salt to the Sea is hugely indicative of the skill of an author who has honed a talent for weaving little-known histories into novels ideal for YA and adult audiences alike. It’s the story of characters who’ve had to leave everything they’ve ever known behind, with much of the book taking place on their journey to what seems like a last chance for sanctuary. The prose is distinctive and fairly sparse, but it’s a compelling read.

Ruta Sepetys is a writer who can take what is essentially the typical, predictable set-up of her genre – telling the story of fictional, though plausible, characters facing individual and collective struggles against the backdrop of historical, and in this case, harrowing events – and prove that it’s still worth reading; that there are still myriad tales to be reworked from history, even in periods we’ve seen explored before. The story told in Salt to the Sea doesn’t even remotely appear on this list of historical fiction I’d love to see, but Sepetys continues to surprise with her ability to draw readers in to her subjects of choice. The book’s short chapters and tough topics mean it absolutely won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the depth of her research shines from the page.

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For fans of Elizabeth Wein, Sarah Crossan and Jennifer Donnelly, Salt to the Sea is a well-researched, incredibly sombre and often moving novel which expertly twines historical events with distinct, vocal teenage characters.

25950053The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Publication date: 3 March 2016
Source: NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi(ish)
Category: YA

The Girl from Everywhere caught my eye because of its premise: a swashbuckling tale featuring the motley crew of a time-travelling ship and a girl with the world at her feet and a whole menagerie of magical creatures and mythology at her fingertips? It sounded like a slam dunk read. Even the title and cover conjured up images of beautiful prose, luxurious detail and fantastical landscapes; storm-tossed seas, old maps, the creak of magnificent ships plunging from one world to another. I wanted spectacular fantasy, full of sweeping adventure. Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its potential.

There are so many extraordinary things in this book’s world – pristine beaches, mystic creatures, exciting adventures – yet the writing does justice to none of them. To say this book disappoints is an understatement: it was published amid a torrent of hype, and as is so often the case, it was not worth that hype at all. The prose is brash and forced. Key details are mentioned as brusque asides. The book squanders its possibilities on secondary plots and one-dimensional characters, and the resulting story is unengaging.

At one point I actually wondered if I’d missed out several early chapters, but no, it’s just a book with totally inexplicable pacing. Maybe it would have worked if readers had any time to get to know the characters, instead of being flung abruptly into unexplained chase sequences and scenes which are probably supposed to have some kind of great significance but which flounder in a writing style that seems to reject meaningful description from the outset. I wanted to like protagonist Nix, but the writing style never allows for her character to be endeared to the reader. I liked Kashmir, but the rest of the cast fall flat: in trying to be all things to all readers, they end up lacking any depth. Later improvements in the book’s details and style are too little, too late: there’s no emotional resonance, no breath-taking descriptions or any real sense of thrill. Throw in underutilized dragons (I really do not like underutilisation of dragons), an out-of-the-blue love triangle and a plot which initially intrigues but lapses into predictability, and The Girl from Everywhere is, to put it mildly, a let-down.

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I’m a fairly generous reviewer, but I just wouldn’t recommend this one. Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo are still your best bet for sprawling YA fantasy, or if you’re specifically looking for a take on magic and maps, look to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars.

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a pair of reviews // children’s fiction takes on a winter’s tale (or several)

It’s time for another pair of reviews – and yes, I have gone full winter (it’s nearly Christmas whoop!). Grab your knitted scarves, curl up with a cup of cocoa (or coffee) and enjoy this foray into children’s fiction!

28168228A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 
26 January 2017
Source: 
I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 
Genre:
magical realism, fantasy
Category:
children’s fiction

A swift, snowy adventure in which the eponymous Owl discovers she’s the daughter of Jack Frost. Full of gleaming icicles and midnight escapes, A Girl Called Owl conjures up vivid sequences of magic and nature, with more than a hint of Disney’s Frozen and Christmas classic The Snowman in its pages.

This is firm magical realism, occasionally touching on issues relevant to modern life – school, divorce, non-nuclear families – but generally focusing on a fantastical semi-otherworld of elemental creatures and their court, where grudges grow and powers wax and wane over centuries.

Denizens of spring and autumn provide a mixture of allies, enemies and surprises, while interjected chapters uncovering backstory and myths start with great intrigue but sometimes lose steam. The book isn’t quite up the standards of recent classics like The Lie Tree or The Wolf Wilder, and its subplots are somewhat tacked-on, with repetitive scenes of dialogue that go nowhere. The plot could be stronger, but the book should make solid reading for young 8-10s. A thoroughly G-rated children’s novel parents will happily gift to kids.

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A Girl Called Owl features beguiling wintry description and a straightforward plot, but there are deficits in storytelling and the dialogue needs work.

29991694Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone
Authors:
Emma Carroll, Jamila Gavin, Berlie Doherty, Michelle Magorian, Michelle Harrison, Amy Alward, Piers Torday, Geraldine McCaughrean, Lauren St. John, Katherine Woodfine, Abi Elphinstone
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication date: 
3 November 2016
Source:
Purchased 
Genre:
magical realism, contemporary, fantasy, multiple
Category:
children’s fiction

Short story anthologies are always tricky: notoriously hit and miss affairs, it’s likely that some stories will endear more than others, and indeed that is the case here. But for the book on the whole to feel satisfying and hold attention – that is a rare thing, and Winter Magic comes very close to achieving throughout that sense of cohesive wonder.

Drawing on the talents of nearly a dozen acclaimed children’s authors from Berlie Doherty to Katherine Woodfine, this collection ranges from soft to sharp, subtle to starry. Helped by its magical unifying theme – enchanting, Christmassy winter – these are stories of playful childhood and close-knit celebration, but also of frost fairs, snow dragons, glittering landscapes, unexpected time travel, rogue French teachers and friendship. Several stories, including Amy Alward’s ‘The Magic of Midwinter’, fell flat for me, but contributions from Michelle Harrison, Lauren St. John and particularly Emma Carroll prove worthy of a collection which is at its best as tempting as Turkish delight in a frozen forest and hearty as Lyra’s race across the ice on the back of an armoured bear.

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At turns enchanting and exciting, Winter Magic is a short story collection which on the whole benefits from the skilled pens of its writers, with only a handful of duff twists or lacklustre contributions. A strong – and altogether more charming – alternative to the YA-orientated I’ll Be Home for Christmas (my review of which you can read here).

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DECK THE HALLS WITH BELLS OF HOLLY (BOURNE): books to give as Christmas gifts this year

We all know the drill: it’s getting closer to Christmas, and you’re wondering if you can swap out the traditional novelty mug and socks for something a little more…conducive to your their book addiction. Or maybe you’re still doing the bookworm’s good work in trying to convince friends and family of the wonders of books in the first place (moment of silence for all those still struggling with this quest). Or maybe you don’t celebrate but just want an excuse to peruse the shelves for hours give birthday or seasonal presents anyway. But what to choose?! To shed some light on the matter, I thought I’d take you through some YA and kidlit perfect for that hard-to-please reader in your life…(even if it’s yourself)

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THE CONTEMPORARY CONTINGENT

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne: I figured we should just get this out of the way first since it’s one of my favourite books to recommend and it’s kind of amazing. Heartfelt, raw and real, it’s the opening book in a trilogy about teens Evie, Lottie and Amber as they tackle friendship, feminism, and feeling less alone in the world. Focused on Evie, this book is also a great introduction to some of the best handling of mental health YA has to offer. It’s not always an easy read, but it’s chatty, accessible and honest. Fabulous.

Love Song by Sophia Bennett: Love Song is warm, feel-good and so well-written. It’s about unexpected allegiances, fractured friendships, new experiences, good food, great songs and of course, a boyband. (If you’re not aware of the #boybandlit phenomenon, check out this post for all the details). i don’t even have the words to describe how fantastic it is, only that it’s one of Sophia Bennett’s best books. It’s full of drama, gorgeously tender moments (I personally love the scene where Jamie sings to heroine Nina’s sister Ariel) and, of course, music.

London Belongs to Us by Sarra Manning: this is a book I’ll be giving as a gift this year, because it is brilliant. Fun, fresh, fast and full of joy, it’s a dizzying whirlwind of a book, pulling you in from start to finish. You can read my full (and much more eloquent) review here for more on its fierce female characters, grumpy French boys and glorious sense of humour.

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SCI-FI THAT’S NOT STAR WARS

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: adult fiction! OH MY BLOG?! A rare sight indeed. But then The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is exceptional in many ways: a refreshing, episodic, detailed, diverse, non-dystopian space opera, it is sci-fi filled with colourful characters, rich cultures, thematic exploration and of course the occasional raising of stakes. Perfect for fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a little more drama thrown in. Another one I’ll be giving as a gift this Christmas.

The Last Beginning by Lauren James: Time travel! Starcrossed romance! Knitting! This is the story of Clove, a teenager investigating the sudden disappearance of two scientists, Katherine Finchley and Matt Galloway sixteen years before. There are multiple timelines, cool secondary characters in the shape of ex-hacker Tom and snarky computer Spart, and epistolary additions like letters, emails, extracts, doodles, transcripts and powerpoints which keep book both visual and interesting. Although it is a sequel so you should probably pick up its predecessor The Next Together as well. (You can read my reviews for both books here.)

These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner: you know the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt movie, Passengers? This is a little bit like that, except YA got it first and oh, the luxury spaceliner in question has just crashlanded from hyperspace onto a nearby planet. Apparently alone, teenagers Lilac – wealthy, privileged, whip-smart – and Tarver – a cynical war hero who came from nothing and, when Icarus crashes, apparently still has nothing – must rely on each other for their very survival. It’s alternately narrated, has an epic romance, and is just generally FULL of feels.

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FIERCE HIGH FANTASY

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi: a lush, lyrical take on mythology and royalty, The Star-Touched Queen is fantasy of a slower kind. It dials things down a notch when it comes to pace and plot, but if you’re looking for world-building and a game of choice and chance that becomes steadily deadlier, then this diverse NYT bestseller may be for you.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: another technically-adult book, this is classy, classic fantasy, full of magical Londons and many-sided coats. Cut-throat almost-pirate Lila Bard steals something dangerous from Kell, brother of the prince of Red London, without realizing he’s an Antari – someone born with the ability to travel between worlds otherwise cut off from each other. Throw in waiting enemies, treacherous deceptions and poisoned power, and it’s a rich, compact opener to a trilogy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas: Throne of Glass is the ULTIMATE high fantasy series in recent YA. If you (or the person you’re buying for) love vast, sprawling sagas with thrilling quests, deadly secrets and just a dash of magic, and you haven’t read it yet, then you need to get on that STAT. Now’s the perfect time to get started, too, as the final book in the series releases next year (though I’m going to include the cover for the third book here because it’s fab).

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and finally: FICTION FOR THOSE PESKY KIDS

Winter Magic edited by Abi Elphinstone: a more recent release, this is a short story collection featuring contributions from award-winning children’s authors like Emma Carroll, Michelle Magorian, Piers Torday, Lauren St. John and Katherine Woodfine. And it it’s a book with a Christmassy winter theme! Its varied, vivid stories should have something for everyone and would make a great gift for eager young readers this year.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell: elegant, extraordinary and full of adventure, Rooftoppers is already being considered a classic of children’s literature, and it was only released three years ago. If you haven’t read it yet, then I urge you to pick this one up, as it’s such a great book. It sees heroine Sophie escape to Paris as she searches for her long-lost mother with only the information contained on the cello case she was found in as a baby to go on, and recounts her acquaintance with the rooftoppers, street urchins who live beneath the night sky. There’s a magical quality to the book even though it isn’t strictly magical, and Rundell’s prose has moments of pure brilliance.

Never Evers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison: ideal for readers nearing YA but with one foot still in middle grade fiction, this is a tale of early teen chaos and bashful charm. Never Evers has all the drama and disaster of classic light-hearted teen fiction – think Louise Rennison or Karen McCombie – with the added pandemonium of a school trip and ski slopes. It’s a landslide (or should that be avalanche?) of shenanigans: snow sport disasters, failed flirtations, new friendships, hidden ballet, igloo building, French popstars… oh, and the smuggling of a live hamster across several international borders. It’s mayhem, misunderstandings and mischief – and full of snow, too!

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So there you have it: your guide to YA and children’s books ideal for gift-giving this Christmas! (Or just for treating yourself). What’s the best book you’ve ever been given – or the worst?! Are your favourites among these recommendations?

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A review with lots of short stories in it // I’ll Be Home For Christmas anthology (various authors)

31114205Authors: Okay, so – hold onto your hats – there’s Holly Bourne, Tom Becker, Kevin Brooks, Sita Brahmachari, Melvin Burgess, Katy Cannon, Cat Clarke – *gulp of air* – Juno Dawson, Tracy Darnton, Julie Mayhew, Non Pratt, Marcus Sedgewick aaand Benjamin Zephaniah *phew*
Publisher: Stripes Publishing
Publication date: 22 September 2016
Category: YA, short stories
Genres: …many
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review
Find on Goodreads

The short story collection I’ll Be Home For Christmas sees a host of big names writing on the theme of home – but of course, this is UKYA, so if you have any expectations of that meaning a nice semi-detached feat. two parents, three kids and a Labrador, you can pretty much throw them out the window before you even start reading it.

This is gritty UKYA on full blast, tackling subjects like poverty, homelessness, grief, violence, homophobia, escape and isolation, with occasional appearances from sci-fi, thriller and semi-ghost stories. It’s difficult to write happy short fiction, and many authors rely on use of the dark or stark for impact here. The collection is less idealised than the Stephanie Perkins-helmed Summer Days and Summer Nights and provides more stories in general than Malorie Blackman’s why-are-there-only-five-original-pieces-in-this Love Hurts, though as with most anthologies, it is a hit and miss affair. 

It is the stories which weave hope and survival with support and family that really stand out in I’ll Be Home For Christmas. Juno Dawson’s take on new love, family and coming out is an uplifting addition to a book which features stories like Holly Bourne’s ‘The Afterschool Club’- a far cry from the feel-good feminist ferocity of the Spinster Club series, titles are about as similar as things get in this account of conditional friendship, toxicity and desperation with a horrific sting in the tail. Sita Brahmachari’s distinctive style makes her contribution interesting reading, while the closing story, ‘Routes and Wings’ by Lisa Williamson, is centred on the issues of homelessness most related to the work of the charity Crisis (which will receive a donation for every copy of the book sold). For those who don’t often read short stories, names like Marcus Sedgewick and Cat Clarke – who focuses on the kind of eclectic ‘found family’ dynamic many have been asking for from YA of late – will appeal.

Non Pratt’s look at the first steps of a teen romance complicated by a strange coincidence is unsurprisingly one of the best stories in the collection, displaying a talent for short fiction already honed by this year’s Unboxed for Barrington Stoke. She knows how to pack story into her pages. Susie Day’s ‘Tumbling’ (from the above mentioned Love Hurts) remains undefeated, however, as my favourite UKYA short story of recent years. (It’s clever and enjoyable in a way that has set the short story bar high for me, and IT NEEDS TO BE GIVEN A FULL-LENGTH SEQUEL, YOU GUYS.)

But I digress. I’d like to see more short fiction in YA, but it’s a tricky thing to pull off – too serious and you end up with a book most readers will put down after thirty seconds, too saccharine and it will lack the realism many come to YA for. This book is fairly serious and definitely requires a trigger warning (in fact it requires several) but strong work from a handful of its authors keeps you reading (though I could’ve sworn Sarah Crossan was announced as part of the original line-up!).

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solid addition to the UKYA short fiction scene, though the sheer variety entailed in an anthology means it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Stand outs include contributions from Juno Dawson, Cat Clarke and Non Pratt.

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2017

It’s that time of year again: time to look briefly away from the fabulous YA releases of 2016 and indulge in a sordid affair with the novels of 2017 which have been catching our eye from across the room for months. I’ve stuck with ten (ish) here, but there are SO MANY to look forward to, it’s a wonder I could even decide…

Throne of Glass #6 by Sarah J. Maas

Okay, so this one was easy. The final installment of Sarah J. Maas’ legendary Throne of Glass series, this book doesn’t even have a title yet and I am SO EXCITED FOR IT. Empire of Storms was so full of twists and revelations it’s beyond words. It left everyone reeling – readers and characters alike – and I cannot wait to find out what happens next, let alone how Maas is going to wrap up what has become not just an epic but an extraordinary feat of female-led high fantasy in YA.

Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

I was so delighted when I heard the premise for Sarah Dessen’s next project. The concept reads like such a burst of joy. Like a delicious, glossy romantic comedy you’d turn to when you need to feel better (or eat several gallons of ice cream), with the added promise of the exceptional heart and depth and detail only a contemporary novel can bring. Weddings, family, a healthy dose of cynicism, happily-ever-afters and Dessen’s penchant for including past characters make this one to look out for. Oh, I have been WAITING for a book like this in YA.

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

The actual details of Strange the Dreamer – Taylor’s first big project after Daughter of Smoke and Bone – have until recently been a closely guarded secret. Whispers of a scholar who loves fairytales, a city bereft of its name, the mysteries of otherworldly creatures and a love letter to fantasy have, however, put this duology opener on my radar, and it certainly has me intrigued. I didn’t love Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but hopefully this will be more up my alley.

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

If you’re looking for recent releases in classy, classic magic-and-knives-and-treachery fantasy fiction, Shades of Magic is the series you’re looking for. Full of adventure, allegiances, betrayals, bloodlust, princes, pirates, magical Londons and stylish coats, the final book in the trilogy promises to raise the stakes, answer burning questions and break hearts, probably in absolutely unequal measure.

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We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

A verse novel and a collaboration, We Come Apart raced up my most anticipated list after I attended Crossan and Conaghan’s first event for the book. They have a great rapport and talked about the book in a really vivid way. Perhaps most importantly, the extract we heard was fantastic. It tells the story of tough Jess and kind-hearted Nicu, two teenagers from very different backgrounds who find unexpected friendship with each other.

All About Mia by Lisa Williamson

I’ve actually already read a sampler of this, and it was amazing. Sixteen-year-old Mia is a middle child, sandwiched between Cambridge-bound Grace (‘Mother Teresa in a blazer’) and future Olympian Audrey (a swimmer otherwise known as Nemo). Constantly overshadowed by her high-achieving siblings, Mia’s grown used to being pushed aside, taking solace in selfies, parties and the knowledge that she probably more friends than her sisters put together, anyway. But when Grace drops a bombshell (and to Mia’s horror, goes unpunished), the family’s lives will be turned upside down over one unforgettable summer. Messy, relatable and full of wit, All About Mia could be a glorious addition to contemporary YA.

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Freshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to laugh-out-loud humour and realistic UKYA. They’re brilliant in interviews, too. After a hilarious, unashamed older YA début in Lobsters and younger YA novel Never Evers, they’re turning their attention to the antics of university freshers, and whatever trouble their characters get into, it’ll definitely be interesting…

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

I really liked Alwyn Hamilton’s first book, and with a perennial habit of not picking up second books in trilogies, I’m hoping this one will be worth following up with! Hamilton’s badass heroine Amani inhabits a world of magic, rebellion, danger, and of course, love interests like the enigmatic Jin. Traitor to the Throne promises even more twists, turns and tenacity, and I’m excited to see where the story goes next.

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

The Star-Touched Queen was lavish, mythical and vivid, though its uneven plot and pacing meant it stopped short of being a favourite for me. This companion novel, however, shouldn’t face the same problems as it picks up with a warrior princess, an unlikely ally, and a fight for survival in battle-scarred kingdom. Readers will recognise heroes Gauri and Vikram as secondary characters from Chokshi’s début, and I’m interested to see how their story intertwines. I’m looking for more action, a tighter plot, and more of the myths which made the first book so nearly brilliant.

Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomas

My interest was piqued by the sound of this book as soon as it was announced. A royal tale of conspiracy, intrigue and unexpected inheritance, it seems quite different from many of my other most anticipated YA novels of 2017, pitched so far as an apparent edgy semi-fantasy mystery of sorts. It certainly has one of the most unusual premises of this list, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

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Honourable mentions (because okay, I have to keep the wordcount down but who can leave any most-anticipated list at just ten?!): Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (about a girl juggling family, friends, heritage, and a new-found passion for athletics), The Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season was one of the best YA novels to come out of Ireland last year and I can’t wait to see Fowley-Doyle’s fierce, spellbinding, original work on the shelf again), A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard (an irresistible, deeply real love story I’ve actually read already but shhh, it can totally be a fave of this year and next) Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer (a high fantasy Sleeping Beauty retelling about curses,sisters and a kingdom on the brink, though I don’t know if it’s being published in the UK) and Now I Rise by Kiersten White (the sequel to And I Darken, White’s incredible genderbent alternate history about Lada the Impaler, my review of which you can read here).

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And so must end my brief fling with the most thrilling reads of 2017 – for now. Although, I’ve just noticed I may have to do another post just for débuts…

What books are you most looking forward to reading next year? Did any appear on this list? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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