My Review of LaRose by Louise Erdrich

download book cover UK version, from Amazon UK

UK Book cover

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US  book cover, designed by Louise’s daughter, Aza Erdrich, and based on their grandfather’s script.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. LaRose was published in paperback, hardcover and as an ebook by Little, Brown Book Group UK, Corsair and HarperCollins in the USA on 10 May.

 “Don’t you love that word? I fit these connections to other connections until a huger connection emerged.

“What are you talking about? Elide doesn’t mean that. It means erase.”

In a small, close-knit Ojibwe (Native) community in North Dakota at the turn of the last century, five-year-old Dusty Ravich is killed by his neighbour, Landreaux, in a hunting accident. Wracked with guilt, Landreaux attempts to bring the grieving family justice by giving them his own young son, LaRose, as compensation. This act—shocking and inconceivable by most people’s standards today—is rooted in traditional Ojibwe teachings and comes out of goodwill and a desire for peace to again descend on the wounded family. Of course, it also results in emotional trauma for the family of LaRose, and for LaRose himself.

A series of events is unleashed which stretches beyond the two families and into their extended kinfolk and even as far back as their ancestors. For LaRose is not the first LaRose, but only one in a long line of LaRoses from his mother, Emmaline’s, line. While telling the story of LaRose and his (now) two families, Erdrich also tells the story of the first LaRose, who was sold to a cruel trader in 1839.

As with all of Erdrich’s books, the past mingles with the present—both in her telling of the story and in terms of the effect the past has on the present-day reality of her characters. While Erdrich shows what it’s like to live on a reservation with its inherent lack of resources and legacy of sorrow, she also (and perhaps more importantly) shows the richness of Ojibwe culture and tradition, the complexity of family life, the friendships which endure despite themselves and the inner strength and resilience of her people.

My favourite aspect of Erdrich’s novels is the way in which she tells her stories. Everyone in the community is a character with their own history—and opinion—regarding the events at hand, and she lets them tell it. This makes for a rich, humane and often humorous reading experience which I cannot begin to do justice to in the space of this review. Her stories resonate far beyond their pages and need to be turned over at length in order to fully appreciate them.  This is not to say that they are difficult to understand—far from it—only that they are stories you’ll want to revisit. LaRose is no exception to this.

You can purchase LaRose from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0182J5NVG/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/LaRose-Novel-Louise-Erdrich-ebook/dp/B01415U50O

Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/larose/louise-erdrich/9781472151865

Order it in from your local independent book store.

Or, consider supporting Birchbark Books, Louise Erdrich’s own book store specialising in Native writers and artists, and order it direct from them (she signs all books sent from the store): http://birchbarkbooks.com/louise-erdrich/larose

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Something Rhymed Literary Salons

Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London examining the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempting to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship. As gender inequality is a topic which I think many female writers are interested in, I thought I’d type up my notes from the salons and share them with you.

Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog:  http://leslietate.com/2016/05/2093/.

The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication for male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.

 

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Salon One: VIDA Count

Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation for female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.

BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation editors need to ferret out the women writers, and women writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity and print media is on its way out.

Maggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.

The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday.  She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.

I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake

During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.

 

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Salon Two:  So-called Women’s Issues

The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences, and perspectives, of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or is there another reason?

The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines easier. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård write it. She said that editors need to be very aware and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.

Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.

Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world.  She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.

Sarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.

 

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Salon Three: Genuine Change

The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.

Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical as to the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, she’s on the opposite side of the panel as her own journey was relatively easy. She attributed this to her growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.

Orange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.

Former Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty spoke to the benefits of the internet age being that publications can be crowdfunded, there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers are desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.

Melanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary event company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all. (I have to admit that this surprised me as I thought even big name writers were expected to use social media these days.)

During the discussion, an audience member who was a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke to the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.(Hearing this I felt grateful that my reading list for my MLitt at University of Glasgow was mostly women and, during the second semester, our professor hand-picked a selection of novels which she thought would be of most use to us, having by then gotten to know our writing tastes and styles.)

The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.

 

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While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.

What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? I’d love to hear so please leave a comment below.

 

Interview with Eva Jordan, author of 183 Times a Year

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Today I’m welcoming the lovely Eva Jordan to my blog. Eva’s debut novel, 183 Times a Year, is currently available as an ebook and was released as a paperback on the 28th April (my review follows the interview). To celebrate she’ll be doing a book launch at Waterstones in Peterborough on 12th May. The address is 38-40 Bridge St, Peterborough PE1 1DT, and the event will run from 7 to 8.30pm. Do drop by if you’re in the area.

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Welcome, Eva! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your writing, especially your debut novel, 183 Times a Year.

Hi Kendra, thank you so much for having me on your wonderful blog.

Firstly, could you describe the story for readers?

183 Times a Year is a laugh out loud look at contemporary family life. The story is seen from two points of view and heard through two very different voices, namely Lizzie and Cassie. Lizzie is the exasperated Mother of Cassie, Connor and Stepdaughter Maisy. She is the frustrated voice of reason to her daughters’ teenage angst and gets by with good friends, cheap wine and talking to herself—out loud. Then there is 16-year-old Cassie—the Facebook-Tweeting, Selfie-Taking, Music and Mobile Phone obsessed teen. Cassie hates everything about her life and longs for the perfect world of Chelsea Divine and her ‘undivorced’ parents—and Joe, the gorgeous boy every girl fancies. 

What inspired you to write this story? I understand that you’re the mother of four teenagers.

It is the women in my life, including my mother, daughters’ and good friends that inspired me to write my debut novel. I wanted to show people the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. For, despite living in a world of advanced technology, where everything is available to us, and anyone with opposable thumbs can document, broadcast, and stream just about anything, smartphone in hand of course, it also feels, at times, like a lonelier, more insular place. It’s easy to believe when scrolling through our friend’s social media pages that somehow everyone else has got it right and yours is the only dysfunctional family on the planet – which just isn’t true of course.

I’m a mother to a 19-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. I’m also a step mum to my other half’s son and daughter who are both now in their twenties. Ours is a blended family and like most families, we’ve had our ups and downs. Parenting, including step-parenting, isn’t easy. At times it can be difficult and challenging, especially with teenagers, but it can also be extremely rewarding. I have many friends with children, some are blended families, some not, and many of the problems that arise in my novel are common to most families. However, although tragic at times, 183 Times a Year has many laugh out loud moments. It is an amusing exploration of domestic love, hate, strength and ultimately friendship. A poignant, heartfelt look at that complex and diverse relationship between a Mother and daughter set amongst the thorny realities of today’s divided and extended families.

When reading 183 Times a Year I was struck by how honest you were in your depiction of teenagers and their relationships with their parents at that age (or seeming lack thereof!). I have to admit you made me cringe with embarrassment at how much of my teenage self I recognised in young Cassie, and, while I don’t have kids of my own, I definitely sympathised with her mum, Lizzie. How difficult was it to re-create these relationships in fiction, and how much of the story was drawn from personal experience?

I’m glad you cringed – that was exactly the emotion I wanted to evoke. The story was drawn from personal experience but not just mine, it was also the experience of friends, family and information gathered through research. As a parent of teenage children it wasn’t particularly difficult to re-create these relationships. I know a couple of readers have struggled with the way Cassie speaks but I wanted to keep her as real as possible. Some readers have said they find Cassie annoying and frustrating – to which I have wanted to reply, “Err hello – welcome to my world and that of most parents of teens.”

Like my own children, Cassie can be extremely annoying at times. Her view of the world is naïve. She sees things as black or white and hasn’t had enough life experience to fill it with all the colours in between. Her moods can often seem extreme swinging from endearing through to narcissistic but, at the end of the day, she is just a young woman struggling to make sense of her place in the world. Lizzie also struggles, especially with parenthood but like a lot of mothers, she does her best with her children. However, although older and wiser she is also at odds with herself, questioning if this – being a librarian and mother – is indeed her lot in life. And if so, is it actually enough? She forgets how difficult it is being a teenager. The universal need of most of us, in one way or another, to assimilate, to somehow fit in and belong in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

What would you like readers to come away with, after reading your book?

To remember that we’re all human, all flawed and that we all make mistakes. Remember to love family and those that love and support us – it’s easy to take people for granted. If your Mum drives you crazy, remember she’s just doing her best, being a parent is one of the most difficult but rewarding jobs in the world and one that comes without an instruction manual. Alternatively, if your teenage children, step children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or your friends’ children are driving you to distraction, remember you were young once. I’m not saying we have to pander to our children but just remember that whilst you are busy worrying about important things like how you are going to pay the rent or mortgage, if that lump you discovered is something to be concerned about or if you really can afford to go on holiday this year, your son’s concern that his acne-pulsating face is preventing him from getting a girlfriend or your daughter’s anxiety at her exclusion from that party that everyone else has been invited to, are also very real to them. After all, true wisdom comes from compassion – for yourself and others.

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when writing 183 Times a Year?

Time, there just isn’t enough of it. I need a 48-hour day and 14-day week to fit everything in – like most people I think! I’ve also struggled with people’s perception of writers – especially those starting out like me. General consensus seems to suggest that because you work from home you can be interrupted, if you’re caught staring into space you can be interrupted, if you ask not to be interrupted – yep, you’ve guessed it – you can be interrupted. I for one, work very long hours as a writer and there are those who just don’t understand or appreciate that. However, having said that, I have also had a great deal of support and encouragement from friends and family alike. And often, that support has come when I have felt like giving up, during those moments when terrible self-doubt creeps in. So in that sense, I have been very lucky.

The novel is written from the alternating viewpoints of teenage Cassie and that of her mum, Lizzie. Was it difficult to write from two different points of view, and how did you manage it? For example, did you write the story chronologically or did you write all of Cassie’s parts and then all of Lizzie’s, or vice versa?

Being a mother and having witnessed the language and behaviour of four teenage children, it wasn’t too difficult to write the two very different points of view, namely that of a mother and her teenage daughter. I did write it mostly in chronological order as one point of view easily followed the other. However, there were times where I just imagined a particular scene with one of the characters so I would write that conversation or chapter and then fit it into the story at a later date.

What do you feel you gained through the writing of your novel?

I achieved a life-long ambition but I gained so much knowledge, information and made many new friends. Online and off, I have met some wonderful, amazing people. The writing community, including readers, reviewers and bloggers are unbelievably supportive and helpful. It would be natural to assume, especially amongst the writing fraternity, that because there is a lot of competition out there, there must be less desire to help one another, however that couldn’t be further from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, you have to do the legwork, put the time in and put yourself out, but if want help, advice and support, it’s there, in abundance.

Once your story was down on paper, did you do a lot of rewriting? Could you talk us through this process?

Yes, I did have to do rewrites but it was more about joining the dots, making sure there was enough foreshadowing and keeping the characters in character – sometimes Cassie sounded too grown up and more like Lizzie!

How did 183 Times a Year come to be published?

I initially self-published my debut novel as an ebook with Troubador in September last year. I then met a lovely reviewer online who read my book and suggested I send it to a publisher she knew, which I did. The publisher in question was Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications. During the run up to Christmas last year, Matthew read my book and agreed to collaborate with me on the paperback version which, I’m happy to say, was released on 28th April. Matthew and Urbane Publications have done a wonderful job and I couldn’t be more pleased with the end result.

I understand that you’re also a published short story writer. Having written both short stories and a novel, which form do you prefer? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of each?

I actually like both forms, short stories and novels but because I always tend to write more rather than less, the short story is a great exercise in editing and condensing which then serves to remind me that I don’t always need to say so much in my novels.

Which writers have influenced your work?

How long have you got – I’ve been inspired by lots of different writers. I have a degree in English and History and my reading has been wide and varied. I’m not a reading snob either – the classics are great but so is a lot of contemporary fiction. Many writers have inspired me from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad to Angela Carter, Sue Townsend, Stephen King—and recently Anna McPartlin, Gillian Flynn and Louise Doughty. I’m currently reading a great debut novel, The Long Weekend, by a writer I recently met called Jane E. James, which is brilliant. I enjoy stories that force the reader to observe the daily interactions of people with one another set against the social complexities of everyday life, be that through crime, love or comedy.

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes – absolutely! I’m writing the sequel to 183 Times a Year at the moment. It’s three years later and there’s lots going on. It’s still humorous but much faster paced with some unexpected dark moments. I also have an idea that I’m collaborating on with one of my brothers – it’s a completely different genre to 183 Times a Year – a thriller I suppose – but very exciting. I’m also working on an idea for a YA novel.

Finally, how can readers get hold of your novel?

Now released as a paperback, you can find or order 183 Times a Year as both an ebook or paperback through most bookshops and retailers including Waterstones and W H Smiths, Amazon, iBooks, Nook and Google Play.

You can also order it in print from Urbane Publications: https://t.co/UTxfI9RsYT

Thanks so much for taking the time to come and speak with us about your work. Best of luck with 183 Times a Year, and with all of your writing!

Thank you so much for having me!

About Eva Jordan

“I am a short story writer and author of the debut novel 183 TIMES A YEAR. I live in a small town in Cambridgeshire with my fiancé and ours is a blended family. Between us we share one cat and four children, all of whom are a constant source of inspiration! My career has been varied, including working in a Women’s Refuge and more recently at the city library. However, storytelling through the art of writing is my true passion.”

Learn more about Eva’s writing by visiting her website:  https://evajordanwriter.com/

Like her page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EvaJordanWriter/

Follow her on Twitter: @evajordanwriter

Kendra’s review of 183 Times a Year

“Why had I been so unforgiving? Even Cassie had had the good sense to see it was just one stupid mistake.”

With a mortgage to pay, an ex-husband who is less than supportive (monetarily or otherwise), cuts being made at work, family illness and friend troubles, Lizzie has little time left to herself. Enter three children and a modern-day blended family and life becomes even more complicated. Her stepdaughter, Maisy–who prefers to be called Mania–hates her. As does her own daughter, Cassie, who refuses to so much as sit at the same table with her should they go out for coffee together, though she is more than happy to let her mother buy the drinks. Lizzie’s only consolation is 11-year-old Connor, who has yet to hit puberty, and who therefore still respects her and enjoys her company.

As the pressure at work mounts due to budget constraints, Lizzie struggles to cope. When Amber, a young, unemployed, library volunteer, confesses to Lizzie that she wants to become pregnant so she won’t have to continue looking for work (and failing to find it), Lizzie does her best to try and help. But is it possible for someone to be too caring?

Meanwhile, Cassie is struggling to pass her exams at school, and uncertain about college. With the most popular girl in school’s party coming up, and Cassie uninvited, she’ll have to do her best to appear “sick” (or “cool”, for those of us from older generations). Unfortunately, her supposed friends seem to forget all about her when she needs them most.  Will Cassie have the courage to be herself for a change, and, if so, where will it take her?

183 Times a Year is a hilarious,  deeply empathetic and almost uncomfortably familiar, exploration of the ins and outs of family life. Jordan does a remarkable job of capturing the relationships between teenagers and their parents and made me look at my teenage years in a very different light. A highly enjoyable read.