Looking Back – Our Favourite Reads of 2013

Slide1As we head into a new year of – hopefully! – excellent reading, we thought we’d take a look back at those books we’ve most enjoyed during 2013. The majority of these are titles which were published in 2013, but in some cases, our reviewers have selected books which may have been published before, but which they read for the first time last year.

Choosing a small number of titles to highlight has been a tricky exercise for all of us, as we’ve all been fortunate enough to read some excellent books, so these surely represent the best of the best. If you’ve read them, then hopefully you’ll be in a position to agree with our reviewers’ choices, and if you haven’t, then perhaps you’ll find some food for your TBR pile here.

And perhaps you think we’ve missed out on something awesome – so please do leave us a comment and tell us about YOUR favourite books of 2013.

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caz GRAVATAR

The Black Madonna by Stella Riley. This is a superbly crafted piece of romantic historical fiction in which the central romance is beautifully developed and the historical backdrop is fascinating and very well-researched. The hero of the story is the compelling and gorgeous Luciano del Santi, a young Italian goldsmith who is trying to find the truth behind his father’s death years earlier. His life becomes inextricably bound with the lives of the Maxwell family of Thorne Ash in Oxfordshire in the time around the first English Civil War.

The Boleyn Deceit by Laura Andersen. This is the second book in a trilogy which takes as its premise – “what if Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a living son?” The historical research is impeccable as Ms Andersen so skilfully intertwines her characters and events with actual events and historical figures. At the heart of the novels is the quartet of friends – William (King Henry IX), his sister Elizabeth, his loyal friend and advisor Dominic Courtenay and the vivacious Minuette, Lady-in-Waiting to Elizabeth, and the object of affection for both men. This second instalment made for an un-putdownable read as friendships are tested to their limits due to political and personal pressures. I can’t wait for book 3, The Boleyn Reckoning which is due out sometime in 2014.

For the Love of a Soldier by Victoria Morgan. This stunning début novel, set in England in the period following the Crimean War, is beautifully written and features two very engaging and well-characterised protagonists – a battle-scarred war hero, and a down-on-her-luck heroine whose eavesdropping saves his life. Their romance begins unconventionally, but is beautifully developed, with some truly delicious sexual tension along the way. There’s a superb set of secondary characters too, and plenty of humour – despite the horrors of war experienced by the hero, I laughed out loud several times while reading.

The Countess Conspiracy is the third novel in Courtney Milan‘s Brothers Sinister series and although it was only released the week before Christmas, I had to make room for it in my top five, because it’s such a superb book. The romance between two long-standing friends is beautifully done and very angsty, and the book is a kind of love letter from Ms Milan to all those forgotten women who made scientific advances in the nineteenth century but were ignored by virtue of their sex. Plus – Sebastian Malheur is one of the dreamiest heroes it’s ever been my fortune to read about;) My review will appear in early January.

18042822Flowers from the Storm (AUDIOBOOK) by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton. This wonderful tale of the debauched duke and the young Quaker woman who saves his sanity and his life is a perennial favourite. The language is beautiful and the author’s characterisation of Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx, as he gradually rebuilds his life is nothing short of masterful. Also nothing short of masterful is the performance given by British actor, Nicholas Boulton in this new audiobook version of the story as he brings Christian and Maddy vividly to life and adds an entirely new dimension to this wonderful and beloved story. Seven of Ms Kinsale’s books are already available in audio format (all expertly narrated by Mr Boulton), with more to follow in 2014.

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Duke of Midnight by Elizabeth Hoyt. Maximus is so guilt ridden over an incident that contributed to his parents’ deaths when he was a child, that he now compensates by being “perfect.” He must marry the perfect woman, and that is certainly not Artemis, who is not duchess material. I loved this book so much, that I wanted to start reading it again the moment I finished it. It is so well written that you are feeling every emotion along with Maximus, and urging him to follow his heart.

Ethan by Grace Burrowes. Ethan has had more heartbreaking and tragic incidents in his life than one man should have to endure. Alice leads him to love and reconciliation with his family, though it’s not an easy task. This is one man who deserved his happy ever after.

Lord of Darkness by Elizabeth Hoyt. Godric and Margaret (“Megs”) have both loved deeply and lost. Circumstances forced them into a marriage of convenience with neither of them expecting or wanting love again. Watching them fall in love with each other, and overcoming their guilt over doing so was pure joy.

It Happened One Midnight by Julie Anne Long. Jonathan is counted as fluff by his father, who manipulates him, trying to force him to marry. There is a steel backbone beneath Jonathan’s charming exterior, and when he meets Thomasina (“Tommy”) the two form a strong and loving bond that will let nothing stand in the way of their being together.

Lady In Red by Maire Claremont. Wrongfully institutionalized by her evil father, Mary is abused for years until she escapes. She finds a champion in Edward, and then finds healing and love. Her evil father gets his well deserved comeuppance. Mary’s strength was an inspiration.

Lizzie English

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The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen
I’ve always loved the Tudor Era, it’s one of the most fascinating to me in any historical period. But to write a completely alternate reality of if Anne Boleyn hadn’t miscarried her son, and he became King. That changes everything. I still need to read the second book, but I can’t wait to see how this ends.

The Second Empress by Michelle Moran
Normally you see books about Napoleon’s first wife Josephine but never about his second. It was interesting to see the Great-Niece of Marie Antonette be brought into the French Empire and having to deal with all of this pressure with her Great Aunt’s fate ruling over her. There are lot of jumps in the story and obviously Marie-Louise isn’t apart of the main conflict in Napoleon’s story, but it’s interesting from her eyes.

Lord of Darkness by Elizabeth Hoyt
One of my favorite Romance Series. This one was especially wonderful, the back story is set up from the get go and you’re off running. A lot of the secret and mystery is in the beginning of the novel then it goes straight into core of Megs and Godric’s relationship and their eventual bond.

Highlander Most Wanted by Maya Banks
Genevieve is a broken woman and it takes Bowen to put her back together again. I LOVED this book. It’s just what you would expect right after the first novel, and who you wanted it to be as well. I really liked how Genevieve was written; she wasn’t willing in the beginning and she still wasn’t into it even after she realized she was in love. She was hesitant and it was logical. But now we have to wait until 2015 for the next one?

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What Remains of Heaven by C.S. Harris
Another of Harris’ fascinating dark Regency mysteries with the attractive hero, Sebastian St.Cyr, Viscount Devlin. In this novel Sebastian seeks answers to a recent murder and one tied to the American Revolution thirty years ago. We learn more of Sebastian’s past, and about that of his family, and it answers some of the questions from the first novel: What Angels Fear. A 5 star for me, it’s more a mystery than a romance although the intriguing thread of romance is there.

Romancing Lady Stone (A School of Gallantry novella) by Delilah Marvelle
An entertaining novella, not without flaws, but I like Delilah Marvelle’s unusual stories. This one features an older heroine. At forty, Lady Cecilia Evangeline Stone has no intention of marrying again. But then she meets an intriguing man, Konstantin Alexie Levin, who is a world away from the English gentleman she was married to. There’s another romantic subplot in this and those lovers tell their story in later novel. 4 stars

The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book2) by Courtney Milan
Expect the unexpected in a Milan story and she’s brilliant at series. Her characters seem so real and her plots are highly original. Is Miss Jane Fairfield really socially clumsy, or does she use it keep suitors at bay? 5 stars.

The Emperor’s Conspiracy by Michelle Diener
I haven’t read Diener before, but I will again. This is a well crafted Regency spy story set during Napoleon’s rein and plotted around a real event. Charlotte Raven is no society debutante – well she didn’t begin that way. She has grown up in the dangerous world of the London slums and knows how to survive in it. I like the originality of the story and the characters, although I wanted more romance at the end. 4.5 Stars

The Kydd Inheritance by Jan Jones
I don’t think this is available in e-book formats. Nell Kydd’s father is dead and her brother Kit is missing. Enter the rather mysterious Captain Hugo Derringer, who is very hard to pin down. Jan Jones says on Amazon that she fell in love with Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and the 1800s at age 12. Those influences are evident in this novel which abounds in historic details clever characterization and a great plot. The Kydd Inheritance is a prequel to Fair Deception, which was shortlisted for the RNA Love Story of the Year 2010. 4.5 Stars

Jill

Heart of Iron by Bec McMaster
Set in 1879, a clever and entertaining combination of historical romance, steampunk, paranormal and alternate history. For readers who also enjoy the Darkest London series by Kristen Callihan and the Blud series by Delilah S. Dawson. 4.5 stars.

Into the Light by Ellen O’Connell. Unlike some of her previous books the setting is not the ‘Wild West’ nor the action and adventure normally associated with westerns. The pace here is slower with a lot of the ‘action’ centred around the newspaper business and the emergence of the automobile.
Ellen O’Connell’s attention to historical detail, her evident research, and her slowly-building love stories set her apart as the leading writer of western or American historical romances today. 4.5 stars.

The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book2) by Courtney Milan. Courtney Milan doesn’t write the expected. Her writing is intelligent. She has once again combined a story rich in historical detail with a clever, deep plot, a slowly building romance, and some wonderfully humorous scenes.
Another stunning, layered story from one of the very best writers of historical romance. 5 stars.

The Sheik Retold by Victoria Vane & E.M Hull. Written in first person from Diana’s point-of-view this is a wonderful retelling of the 1919 classic The Sheik by Edith Maude Hull.
This is insanely entertaining. Although it does closely follow the original plot, Ms Vane has made certain changes to reflect a more modern retelling with some explicit sexual scenes. A recommended read for lovers of erotic historical romance, romantic historical fiction and sheik romances. 4.5 stars.

The Secrets She Carried by Barbara Davis. Set in dual timelines, 2013 and the 1930s, this romantic fiction is a must-read for those who enjoy family sagas and family secrets.
With beautiful prose, a mystery with some surprising twists and two romances, The Secrets She Carried is an impressive debut, suitable for readers of contemporary women’s fiction and romantic historical fiction. 4.5 stars.

Susan

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Norse Jewel by Gina Conkle
Hakan, a brawny but oh-so-gentle Viking purchases Helena, a Frankish slave girl from an abusive slave owner.  Conkle spins their employee/indentured servant relationship into a loving and sensual romance that puts Vikings in the running for the most desirable alpha males. In a world infested with warfare and back-stabbers, Hakan and Helena discover that the only ones they can invest their trust in is each other. Conkle makes their love seem believable and accessible to the audience, and most definitely sensual.

The Reprobate by Dorothy Bell
Royce O’Bannon, a self-proclaimed reprobate is transformed into a chivalrous romantic hero when his heart starts to pine for Cleantha Arnaud, a lovely and lamed damsel whose overly protective father stands in his way.  Bell crafts a well-defined cast of characters whose lives are turned upside and then right-side up with help of one another. Carving out a path separate from his thieving father, Royce discovers he has something more to offer society. With the guidance of Cleantha, this roué does indeed become a dreamy gentleman.

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
England’s Dark Ages are visited in this tale about Emma, the Maid of Normandy who is sent to London to marry the Saxon king Aethelred.  Bracewell provides a vivid image of this time period in a world fraught with war, treachery, and deceit embellished by scheming courtiers. Truth or fiction, this is a story that could be viewed as a biopic about Queen Emma even with the author’s creative liberties suggesting there were moments of intimacy between King Athelred’s wife Emma and his eldest son Aethelstan. Theirs is a love story that reminds audiences of the legendary Lancelot and Guinevere, though Aethelred’s kingdom was no Camelot. This is a book that gives readers clues about the past and which figures took part in shaping the course of world history and the entangling relationship of England, Normandy and Denmark.

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Shattered by Jennie Marsland
This book was different from what would I normally choose to read, but I really enjoyed it. The story is very well written and I loved the characters. The author did an excellent job of withholding secrets and it kept me turning the pages for more to be revealed. Another thing I liked about the book was that the hero wasn’t drop dead gorgeous and wealthy and neither was the heroine. They were normal people with deep seated issues that needed to be resolved. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series.

The Duchess Hunt by Jennifer Haymore
Jennifer Haymore paints a vivid picture of the hypocrisy of London society, with their flagrant affairs and decadent life style through deeply moving emotional characters. I became so enmeshed in this story that I just couldn’t put it down and when I had to, the story kept running through my mind, keeping me anxious to return to this engrossing tale. It was as if I became Sarah. This book is very well written, which has not been the case with some of the books I’ve read lately. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book, and I highly recommend this unforgettable story. This will go on my keeper shelf, because I’ll definitely want to return for another visit with these enchanting characters and unique storyline.

The Ledger by Lloyd Holm
When I read this book, I had no idea what this story was about. I thought it would be a typical historical romance set during World War II, but it turned out to be so much more. It starts out with a young engaged couple, Paul Rosenbaum and Christine Kruger, traveling to Sermaize-les-Bains to visit her grandfather, Andre Ferrand.
Andre Ferrand tells them how the Krugers and the Ferrands became such good friends. Andre Ferrand met Konrad Kruger on December 24, 1914 during what is now known as the Christmas Truce. They exchanged addresses, even though Andre was French and Konrad was German and his sworn enemy.
This book tells the story of the men’s friendship and the romance between their children, Hans Kruger, and Aimee Ferrand. The couple corresponds over a four year period, only seeing each other a few times, but their love is stronger than the tides of war. I won’t tell you more because I don’t want to spoil this for you. I hope you’ll take the time to read this incredible story of two young lovers who overcome all for the sake of love.

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I’ll begin with the esteemed Courtney Milan. In The The Heiress Effect (The Brothers Sinister Book2), she pairs an unlikely heroine with a reluctant hero. Oliver Marshall thinks Jane Fairfield is rather ghastly, given her penchant for wearing garish colors, talking too loudly, and oh-so-politely insulting people to their faces. As they become better acquainted, however, Oliver finds that he rather likes her, but Jane is not the type of woman to make a good wife for an aspiring politician. There are several secondary stories that give the reader a vivid look at the role of women in mid-Victorian England. Even for the privileged, life is not always easy, but Milan’s ladies don’t wait to be rescued; they persevere until they find a comfortable mate and place in the world without surrendering their essential being. Despite being called the Brothers Sinister series, these books really are about the heroines and I recommend all of them.

Another young lady who doesn’t wait for her fate is Lady Genevieve Windham in Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait by Grace Burrowes. As the last unmarried daughter in the large Windham family, she is determined to live in Paris and study art despite her parents’ certain disapproval. When she crosses paths with handsome artist Elijah Harrison, her plans change but not her dedication to her art. As this is the last novel of eight in the Windham series, Lady Jenny’s siblings, their spouses, and their children make appearances, along with her delightful parents, still in love after forty years together. If you like family sagas, something at which Burrowes excels, the Windham series is hard to beat.

Grace Burrowes began a new family series last year, set in Victorian Scotland and revolving around the MacGregor clan. In Once Upon a Tartan, she has created a complex, enigmatic hero who is both maddening and fascinating. Although the heroine, Hester Daniels, is wonderful, Tiberius Flynn dominates the book. The spotlight often is stolen, however, by Hester’s nine-year-old niece Fiona. I am aware that some romance readers do not enjoy stories with children, but Grace Burrowes has a marvelous talent for creating juvenile characters who act and speak like real children. She is by turns exasperating, calculating, and stubborn and serves as an important catalyst in bringing Hester and Tiberius together.

Sherry Thomas, who oddly has been hit-or-miss for me, hits it out of the park with The Luckiest Lady in London, where two imperfect people make for a perfect couple. After growing up unloved, Felix Rivendale has adopted the persona of the “Ideal Gentleman.” Underneath, however, he is cynical about love; he must always be in control and will never allow any woman to have power over him. Louisa Cantwell, lacking beauty, pedigree, and fortune, is not the type of woman who Felix would ever notice. With considerable strength of mind, she has adopted her own persona. She hones her social skills, makes herself interesting, sweet, and warm, and is admired by everyone. But she feels like a fraud and distrusts everyone, certain that if they really knew her they would not be interested. Strangely, what draws Felix and Louisa to one another is that each feels like the other can see through their respective facades. The rough patches along their road to an HEA are never trivial, and Thomas does a brilliant job of immersing the reader in both characters’ pain.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tessa Dare’s final novel in the Spindle Cove series, Any Duchess Will Do. When Griffin Halford’s diabolical mother drags him to Spindle Cove and insists he choose a bride from among the many women living there, he decides to spike her guns by picking Pauline Simms, the barmaid. Griff is a duke, and his mama swears she can turn any woman into a duchess. While I generally find cross-class Regency novels to be unconvincing, Dare comes up with some clever and credible reasons to explain why Pauline is actually a diamond in the rough. The plot is clever; surprising events occur, and while I knew there would be an HEA I wasn’t certain how it would occur until the last page. The pacing is excellent; there was never a moment I wanted to put the book down and do something else. The trademark Tessa Dare humor is present on almost every page, but there are also beautiful, serious passages about the multi-faceted, fully-realized characters.

Sebina C.

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One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (The Rules of Scoundrels #2) by Sarah Maclean. It’s no secret that Sarah Maclean is a popular and talented author. What I loved about this book was that we have a woman who wears glasses, who is a woman of science but who is essentially considered odd. She’s an outsider. When she meets Cross, she discovers someone who sees her for the person she is and who understands the things she says without confusion. I loved that they were both different and intelligent and that they challenged each other in all the right ways. Ultimately, the sexual tension, the lessons Cross gives her and the temptation they are to each other is what made this book one of my favorite Historical Romances this year.

Stowaway Bride (book #2) by Adrianne Wood. I don’t read many historical romances set in the American West, but this one is a great example of one written beautifully. It has a captivating and suspenseful plot, well-crafted characters, a hot romance and most of all a fun adventure story with many funny situations that will make you either laugh or smile. The story also has a wonderfully done and memorable falling-in-love dance between the couple, Emily and Lucien. Emily is a feisty and intelligent heroine, and Lucien is a passionate and risk-taking hero. They were one of the reasons this was a page-turning read for me. (Our review will run late January – ed.)

Sweet Revenge (Nemesis, Unlimited #1) by Zoe Archer. This was a more gritty, action-packed historical romance that had a really hot romance with two tough, no-nonsense characters. The author also focused on some aspects of the Victorian era that I’m not used to reading, and I responded to that. Men of action and empowered women – what more could one want? Oh yes, a really emotional and hot romance to die for.

Jenny Q

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Shadowdance by Kristen Callihan. This entire series is awesome. The perfect blend of historical ambiance, supernatural lore, smart and sexy characters, dangerous liaisons, and of course, true love. It’s a classic good vs. evil story world where elemental witches, werewolves, and ghosts fight to prevent humanity from learning of their existence while trying to save the world from demons. In this fourth book, two tormented characters from the previous novels come together in a twisty-turny plot full of angst and emotion and seriously high stakes, and it’s my favorite book of the series so far.

Heart of Iron by Bec McMaster. This is the second in a series but the first book of hers I read, and it’s fantastic. I’ve purchased books one and three and just haven’t had a chance to get to them yet, but I will! This is along the same lines as Callihan’s series but in a more underworld/common man type of way. Our heroes hide in slums rather than reside in posh town homes among the ton, and not only are they known to the rest of the world but they are persecuted. There’s more steampunkery too. A vividly depicted story world, and Will, the Beast, is hot, hot, HOT. (I dig werewolves.) Pair him with a saucy little spy and the fireworks are explosive. Good characters, good story, good time!

Beautiful Bad Man by Ellen O’Connell. A self-published gem! Fantastic characterization of the kind you don’t normally find in romance. A gritty, realistic, heartbreakingly depicted tale of hardship, suffering, disappointment…and second chances. A true Western and an excellent story, well told. And beautifully written too. Had me hooked from the first page and left me thinking about it long after finishing it. It’s earned a spot on my favorites shelf.

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The Sum of all Kisses by Julia Quinn. We all have had preconceived notions about people. This book makes you think. What if I got to know this person and found out I was wrong about them? Sometimes we get so tied up in our own misery we forget that other people have suffered as much or more than ourselves. This is what happened with Hugh and Sarah. They were forced together because of a wedding they both had to attend and after spending some time together, they realized life was too short to hold grudges. Forgiveness led to true love and many wrongs were righted in the process. Julia tells the heartwarming love story her signature wit and humor. 5+ stars!

The Hunter by Monica McCarty. Why did I like this book so much? First of all there were laugh out loud moments as Ewen fights off his attraction to a woman he thinks is a nun. Secondly, the danger and intrigue made the plot very absorbing, and of course you can’t go wrong with a sexy, alpha highlander! 5 stars.

The Officer and the Bostoner by Rose Gordon. This was one of the very few historical romances I read this past year that was set in America. There are TONS of Regency noblemen and Scottish Highlanders, which I obviously enjoy, but having a different setting was very refreshing. I also enjoyed the humor sprinkled throughout.

Conduct Unbecoming a Gentleman by Wareeze Woodson. What made this story stand out for me was Laurel’s grit and determination to do whatever it took to protect her child. While British law was on the side of Lord Andron, Laurel will move heaven and earth to be with her child. Finding love was the last thing she expected. This book highlighted the harsh laws regarding women and inheritance. The author didn’t sugarcoat the way things were back then, even if it was infuriating. I admired the author for staying true to the period in which she was writing.

Kisses, She Wrote by Katherine Ashe. This is the story of how the two main characters come to the slow realization that they more than like each other. They enjoy each other’s company and become friends, and of course, things escalate from there as the sensuality builds at a tantalizing pace. Novellas are becoming very popular and I am slowly warming up to them. One like this will keep me coming back for more!

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One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (The Rules of Scoundrels #2) by Sarah Maclean. This is a gorgeously written story about an inquisitive bluestocking’s daring “scientific experiment” with a secretive and mysterious scoundrel. This is the second book in MacLean’s very entertaining Rules of Scoundrels series.

Darius by Grace Burrowes: With his beloved sister tainted by scandal, his widowed brother shattered by grief, and his funds cut off, Darius Lindsey sees no option but to sell himself — body and soul. Until the day he encounters lovely, beguiling Lady Vivian Longstreet, whose tenderness and understanding wrap his soul in a grace he knows he’ll never deserve. Handsome, sweet and caring Darius has been dealt a terribly distressing hand in life; this is how he makes his way out. An unusual, beautiful, and very tender love story, this is the first in Ms Burrowes’ sexy Lonely Lords series.

In the Arms of the Heiress by Maggie Robinson. This was a charming and very funny book; it made me smile and laugh out loud. I loved watching Louisa and Charles fall in love with each other, quirks and all. The first in Robinson’s Ladies Unlaced series.

Lord of Wicked Intentions by Lorraine Heath. For some reason, the third time’s the charm, that is, the third in any of Heath’s series and this is the third in the Lost Lords of Pembrook series. Evelyn’s brother auctions her off to the highest bidder: Rafe Easton. The story of how two damaged people find love and comfort in each other, this is a breathlessly romantic love story.

A Most Scandalous Proposal by Ashlyn MacNamara A Beautiful debut in the style of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, about two very close sisters’ love stories–both mired in potential scandal. Two wonderful romances, great dialogue, and characters I cared about, I loved this story.

So there you have it! A selection of great books from different time-periods and genres, chosen from the many titles our reviewers have read in the past year. How do our top fives compare to yours? Let us know if you think we’re missing out on any hidden gems!
And as we move into a new year – have you got any reading resolutions for 2014? Are there any time periods or genres you intend to read for the first time? What books are you looking forward to?

For now, it just remains to wish everyone a very Happy New Year!

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