Book review: “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Shafak

As I write this, it is being announced on the radio news that Ratko Mladic has been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the The Hague, for his orchestration of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where as many as 8,000 Bosnian muslims were killed. It is ironic then that my book review this week concerns a novel, at the heart of which lies the Armenian genocide of 1915. It is believed that up to 1.2 million ethnic Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16. A few thousand managed to escape, mostly to America. This atrocity is considered to be the first genocide of the twentieth century and led ultimately to the establishment of the concept of ‘genocide’ in international law after World War II, which was considered at length by Philippe Sands in his book East West Street, which I reviewed here last year after it won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction.

2017-11-14 14.33.12The Bastard of Istanbul is a curious book, which my fellow book club members found disappointing. At the heart of the novel is the Kazanci family, living in Istanbul. The household is exclusively female and comprises Asya, (the eponymous ‘Bastard’) her three aunts and her mother (whom she also calls ‘Auntie’), her grandmother and ‘Petite-Ma’ who I think is her great-grandmother (more of that later, it’s part of the problem with the book). There is an uncle, who moved to America as a young man and has never returned. All the men in the family are afflicted by early death. Mustafa, the prodigal son, is in his 30s.

 

There is a second family to get to grips with, living in Arizona. Teenager Armanoush is the product of Rose (a southern gal) and Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, the son of an Armenian family, part of the Armenian diaspora. Rose and Barsam separated when Armanoush (also called ‘Amy’) was a toddler, and Rose then bumped into and married Mustafa (the prodigal Kazanci son). Still with me? Armanoush, curious to learn about her Armenian forebears’ early life in Istanbul, contrives to travel to the city and stay with her stepfather Mustafa’s family (the Kazanci women) without her parents knowing (they would not have approved.)

The novel opens with a bang – Zeliha, the most flamboyant and wayward of the quirky Kazanci sisters, arrives at a clinic demanding an abortion. At the very last minute, however, she does not go through with it. Enter Asya. The first half of the book is setting the scene of both Asya’s life (she is now a slightly surly teenager) and the Kazanci household as well as Armanoush’s life in the US. The second half is mainly concerned with the two young women and their developing relationship in Istanbul, and gradually the connection between them unfolds. Throughout the novel, the history of the Armenian genocide is woven in, particularly as it relates to the Turkish Kazancis and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchians.

Let me tell you what’s good about this book: I loved the sense of place – I have never been to Istanbul but am fascinated by it and by this part of the world generally and it’s on my bucket-list. I loved the characters: they are interesting and credible and the way the author builds our impression of them is beautifully done. Elif Shafak can write, and she can write with humour; there are some laugh-out loud moments, although knowing what I now do about the Armenian genocide, I’m wondering if it was fitting.

However, there are also some problems with the book, mainly it is over-written. For me, it needed some skilful editing. There is a large cast-list here and I’m afraid I rather lost track of some of the peripheral characters (Petite-Ma, for example), who are actually rather important to the story because you need to understand the ancestor relationships in order to fully appreciate the plot. There are some superfluous chunks that could easily have been stripped out and this would have given the plot lines (and later twists) greater force. Also, the historical thread, the background on the genocide, would have been given greater prominence.

The author states in the Acknowledgements that she was put on trial in 2006 for “denigrating Turkishness” with this novel (charges were later dropped). For that reason, and for the historical detail, it is worth a read, but I’m afraid, for me, it was a novel that did not quite live up to its potential.

If you have read The Bastard of Istanbul I’d love to hear your views.

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“May you live in interesting times” – two political classics and why we need them more than ever

‘May you live in interesting times’  is an English expression which is said to be translated from an ancient Chinese curse. Laced with irony, it conveys the danger and the associated anxiety when national or international events  seem to go through periods of intense change or activity. I don’t know about you, but it certainly feels to me that we are living in interesting times at the moment! It’s not so much the political turmoil (British, European, global) that bothers me, I suspect every generation experiences times when world events seem dangerously unpredictable. No, it’s more the way that power is exercised by a small group over a large group and how the small group gets the large group to behave in particular ways that benefit the small group. I’m talking about lying with impunity, inequality and abuse, distorting evidence (especially about climate change) and stirring up hatred. These things frighten me more and have the potential to damage more of us than the ‘threats’ others would have us fear, for example, North Korea, terrorism or immigration.

In recent weeks I have turned to two very important books which have sharpened my understanding of our present situation. Whilst on holiday in the Summer I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and I have been listening to 1984 by George Orwell, a book that I last read whilst at University.

2017-11-12-21-46-11.jpgI read A Clockwork Orange on my husband’s recommendation, straight after he’d completed it – it’s one of his favourite films, which we have watched many times, but neither of us had read the book. It’s quite short, but also quite hard-going as it is narrated by the central character, Alex, who speaks in ‘nadsat’ a kind of teenage vocabulary of the future, based loosely on Slav languages. I read it with a glossary (though Burgess intended that it should not be), but after while I found I did not consult it, and it flowed better just to read it and understand the sense, if not every word.

It is a book about violence and hatred, between generations, between genders, between different social groups. It is also about social isolation, about fractured communities and about a violent experimental penal system where punishment is presented by the author as nearly as vile as the original offence. Parts of it are difficult to read because of the violence (there is a terrible rape scene at the beginning when Alex and his ‘droogies’ (friends) go on a drink and drug-fuelled rampage through the town), but mostly because it is profoundly disturbing as an example of how a society, or parts of society, can be persuaded to act in the most vicious ways, and how this is driven by collective approval, the power of the group. It is a book about collective moral failure and the breakdown of the social contract which maintains order.

I listened to 1984 on audiobook over a period of several weeks in my car. There were moments when I had to pull over, aghast at what I was hearing. It was written in 1949 and I first read it lazily and only partially in the late ’80s, when I was 19 or 20. At that time the book was only 40 years old, and it was amusing that it described a future society in a year that had already passed (just as Space:1999 became ironic at the start of the 21st century!) The book is now over 70 years old and, frankly, parts of it could describe the world we live in today, our ‘interesting times’. The book describes a totalitarian state, Oceania, said to be based on Stalinist Russia, led by an omnipotent strongman Big Brother. The world is divided into three power blocs – in addition to Oceania there is Eurasia and Eastasia – who are perpetually at war. The constant state of war justifies the indefinite suspension of human liberties and the permanent control not only of human action, but of human thought. Offenders are eliminated, cruelly, and power is exercised through fear.

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Ministry of Truth? A new statue of George Orwell was unveiled at the BBC headquarters in central London this week. The author worked at the BBC for a short time during WW2.

In the context of our own ‘interesting times’ the themes which disturbed me most were, firstly, the ‘cult of personality’ – Big Brother is all powerful and his power is conferred by an artificially inspired devotion. I’ve decided you can have too much personality in a leader and it is overrated. Secondly, ‘historical revisionism’ – populations are manipulated all the time by being told subjective versions of events, both past and present, that suit the teller and are politically expedient. Extremists and the seemingly not-so extreme, are guilty of this, it seems to me. And finally, “2+2=5” – we all believe we think for ourselves, but human beings can be persuaded to think the unthinkable, or believe what is objectively untrue. From big business marketing (corporations who deliberately befuddle our notions of ‘want’ and ‘need’) to political spin (like the numbers attending a political rally, or how happy they are to be there) to selling whole populations a pup, it seems they will dare to persuade us of anything. I fear 1984 could be renamed The 20-teens.

Do you think we are living in ‘interesting times’?

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Children’s fiction review: “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and the challenges of keeping our kids reading when there are so many other distractions and calls on their time. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting titles to recommend and this one caught my eye recently. It was first published in 2016 but has been given some prominence in my local (chain) bookstore in recent weeks.

Pax imgThe cover is lovely and there are a handful of illustrations in the book which are truly beautiful and very evocative. The apparent subject matter (animals) and the fact that it has some illustrations might put off some of the target readership (10-11 year olds, I would say), particularly the more advanced readers among them, who might think it is better suited to younger ones. The themes, however, are much more mature than you might think and may in fact be upsetting to more sensitive 9-10 year olds, say. It is perfect, therefore, for older primary school kids who are perhaps more reluctant readers who may find some of those thick volumes a bit daunting. At 276 pages, with a few pictures and nicely spaced typeface, this is a book where pages will be turned quite quickly; in my experience, this is a surprisingly important factor in many children’s enjoyment of a book!

The plot of this story concerns 12 year old Peter and his ‘pet’ fox, Pax. Peter found Pax when he was just a few weeks old, the only one in the litter still alive and the parents having also been killed. Peter was allowed to keep the fox and he raised him as a pet. Peter’s mother died some years earlier so when we meet him he is living alone with his father, a rather severe man whose character is not fully drawn, but you definitely get the sense that he has troubles of his own. The story is clearly set in the US, but the time is unclear. It is not exactly ‘present day’, however, as there are references to a war going on in the surrounding area. The event which sparks the story is that Peter’s father is called away to take part in the war; he is an electrician or similar. He is posted not too far away, but it means that Peter has to go and live with his grandfather, with whom he does not appear to be close. Because of this, Peter is told that he can no longer keep Pax and that he must be returned to the wild.

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Pax is abandoned by the side of the road

As soon Pax is released, rather hurriedly and rather coldly, Peter bitterly regrets this action. Fearing that Pax could never survive in the wild, being virtually tame, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and embarks upon a search for Pax in the forests where he thinks they left him (a couple of hundred miles away), which is also the area where explosives are being either laid or tested in pursuit of the war.

The chapters alternate between Pax’s story, as he has to try and survive in the wild for the first time in his life, and Peter’s journey. Pax meets other foxes, particularly a feisty young vixen called Bristle who is at first hostile to him because he smells of humans; she lost her parents and siblings to a trap and looks after her younger and weaker brother, Runt. This mirrors Peter’s encounter with Vola, who finds Peter at her isolated farmhouse where he shelters after breaking a bone in his foot. Vola is a recluse who runs a small farm which she inherited from her family. She has a wooden leg, having lost one of her own whilst participating in the war as a medic. At first Vola resents Peter’s intrusion into her quiet life, but as their relationship grows (she finds her conscience will not let her abandon the young boy) so she is forced to face up to her own demons, terrible memories from her past, particularly her time in the war. Similarly, Bristle learns increasingly to trust Pax as he helps and protects her, both from the soldiers encroaching on their forest territory and predators, such as coyotes.

SPOILER ALERT!

Pax and Peter do eventually find each other  and Peter must decide whether to take Pax back in again as his pet, or whether to let him go and live amongst his new companions. His choice does not provide the happy ending that many younger children would want and expect, hence my feeling that it’s for older ones. But it will raise important questions for readers about how animals and human coexist and the impact of human habitation on wildlife and the balance of nature.

I really enjoyed this book and animal-loving kids will love the Pax chapters which are written quite differently to convey the special way that foxes communicate and interact – the book has been well-researched and just about avoids anthropomorphising whilst also making Pax a sympathetic character that readers can identify with. There are some challenging themes (not least Peter’s recollections about his mother’s death and the difficult relationship he has with his father), a few gory bits, and some scary suspense-filled bits. Recommended for 10-11 year olds.

What books are your children reading at the moment?

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Man Booker Book Review #5: “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund

This was the fifth book in my Man Booker shortlist reading marathon and I had not finished it by the time the winner was announced last week (George Saunders won with Lincoln in the Bardo you may recall). I was almost halfway through though, and felt quite strongly that it would not be the winner. It’s a debut novel (one of three on the shortlist, among them Saunders who has mostly published short and non-fiction previously), the author being best known for her short stories. To be honest, it did not move me, even though the subject matter is challenging and parts of the book shocking, even harrowing.

A History of Wolves imgIt’s a tough one to review without giving too much away, and the comments on the jacket don’t say very much about the story either, only that it is “exquisite”, “compelling” and “forcefully moving”. The central character is Linda (also Madeline or Mattie to her parents), who is an only child living with her parents in small town Minnesota. To say they live in a rural environment is an under-statement; they live in a cabin in the woods, which they seem to have built themselves, with their dogs. It seems they were formerly part of a small commune, but the other residents have gradually moved away as the cooperative spirit broke down. Linda’s parents are rather remote and she is allowed to roam the area freely, to canoe on the lake as and when she pleases, and to walk many miles in all weathers.

The primary plot of the novel is the relationship that Linda develops with a family that moves in across the lake. Somewhat disillusioned and disappointed with her own existence, Linda befriends the young woman, Patra, and her young son, Paul, aged four, and becomes his babysitter, or his ‘governess’ as Patra decides to call her. Patra’s husband, Leo is initially not present. He is an academic, working on some significant science project and has settled his family in this rural setting to enable them to have a better quality of life. Linda becomes very close to Patra and Paul, insinuating herself ever more closely into their lives, a fact which her parents do not seem to mind.

A parallel plotline is that of Linda’s school life. Linda is the victim of low-level bullying at school; the other kids see her as different to them and tease her because they know that her parents were part of a commune. The title of the story refers to a project Linda did for a regional History Odyssey. She somewhat misinterpreted the remit of the task, and therefore had no chance of winning, but her project on the history of wolves was given a special recognition. The teacher who invited her to participate in the competition, Mr Grierson, a recent blow-in from California, is subsequently implicated in a sex scandal with one of Linda’s classmates.

The first half of the book is slow. The writing is beautiful and skilful, but I had trouble seeing where it was all going and how the very disparate plotlines would at any point intersect. About halfway through Leo returns and the pace alters somewhat. His return changes the dynamic of the Linda, Patra, Paul set-up and it becomes clear that his presence is about to impact on events. Which it does! I can say no more without giving away too much of the plot, but I will just say that he is much older than his wife and that he is a committed Christian Scientist who has converted Patra, his former student.

There were a couple of things I really liked about the book. Firstly, the sense of place, the remote atmosphere of rural Minnesota and the character of the local population, their interests and priorities, are beautifully drawn. Secondly, I think the concept is a good one; the exploration of not just Christian Science as religion, cult or social grouping, but of all forms of group identity that people create for themselves in order to feel a communal belonging, is fascinating. On the whole, however, the book did not deliver for me and the group identity theme is not as fully explored as I would have liked. Later on in the novel we meet Linda when she is an adult, living in the city and reflecting back on the events of her teenage years. The novel jumps back and forth between the present and the separate plotlines of the past and I found this rather annoying. I found the ending something of anti-climax and for me the novel did not really fulfil its potential. It felt like an early draft that needed some reorganising.

I know there are others who have raved about this book, so don’t just take my word for it, but I’m afraid it fell short of Man Booker shortlist standard for me. And against my Days Without End yardstick (possibly the best book not to be shortlisted, ever!) I’m afraid it is inferior.

If you have read this book, what did you think? Is it just me???

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Man Booker prize – winner announced tonight

So, if you watch the news bulletins at 10pm tonight they will at some point during the programme “go live to the Guildhall in London”, etc, etc for the announcement of the Man Booker winner 2017. A few weeks ago, I set myself the task of tackling all six books on the shortlist. Alas, once again, I did not manage them all, though I improved on last year’s performance; this time I managed the complete four (see those on the left below), am halfway through the fifth (History of Wolves) and the sixth (4321) is so daunting I’m not sure I’ll sit down with it this side of Christmas!

 

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So, who do I think will win? Well, the bookies’ favourite is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Yes, it’s very unusual, some might say innovative, but I’m afraid I cannot say I enjoyed it that much, so it would not be my winner. The one I have most enjoyed is Elmet by Fiona Mozley, and my book club pals also thought it was an incredible tour de force of a story, like nothing any of us had read in some time. That said, I don’t think it will win.

History of Wolves, for me, is suffering from being read after Elmet. I had to have a bit of a pause after Elmet as I didn’t think I could pick up another book straight away. It had to rest with me for a while. History of Wolves is a much slower burn and, although I’m halfway through, I still can’t really tell where it’s going. It’s beautifully written, but, so far, there is very little plot. I’ll post my review of it soon.

Exit West  was good, but I was slightly disappointed as I had high expectations. Autumn  is also very good, beautifully written and highly topical. For this reason, I think Ali Smith has a good chance of taking the prize. As does, in my view, Paul Auster; although I haven’t yet read 4321, Auster is probably the biggest hitter (with the biggest book!), and the reviews have been very good.

So, my head tells me Auster or Saunders, my heart tells me Smith. That’s hedging my bets isn’t it?!

Overall, the shortlist has been rather underwhelming. I’ve been measuring each book against the yardstick of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which has to be the best book not to win the Man Booker this year (made the longlist but not the shortlist) and is one of my best books of 2017. I’m afraid that none of those shortlisted matches up for me so far.

What’s been your favourite book on the shortlist? Who do you think is going to win?

Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

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The latest in YA books – books for teens

Last week, I blogged about some of the interesting new children’s titles that had caught my eye. In recent years, YA fiction has rightly developed as a genre apart from younger children’s fiction, and there are some fantastic young writers out there catering for the needs of this age group. Most adults would accept I think that the pressures on teenagers these days are numerous and new, and for many parents navigating this unknown terrain can be challenging and worrying. In the same way that children’s literature can help our little ones work through some of their fears and worries (from the monster under the bed to the impending arrival of a sibling), so YA fiction can help teenagers deal with the issues they face, when they may feel their parents just don’t understand.

Here are a few of the titles that have attracted me.

No Filter

 

Irish writer Orlagh Collins’s story No Filter covers traditional teen territory, that of first love. It tells the story of Emerald who comes from a privileged background, and appears to enjoy an outwardly perfect life. Then Emerald discovers her mother unconscious on the bathroom floor and her world begins to fall apart. She is sent off to stay with her grandmother in Ireland for the summer, where she meets Liam, and begins to reevaluate what’s important.

 

 

Just Fly AwayJust Fly Away is the debut novel from 1980s brat-pack actor, turned award-winning director and author Andrew McCarthy. It tells the story of fifteen year old Lucy who discovers that she has a half-brother, the result of an affair her father had, living in the same town. Like No Filter it is a novel about secrets and lies, as Lucy escapes to Maine to live with her grandfather, himself estranged from the family, and to work through the confusion and torment her discovery has left her with.

 

 

all the things that could go wrongFinally, on a different topic, there is All the Things that Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster which concerns the relationship between two boys, initially at loggerheads, who find common cause when they are forced to spend time together. Alex suffers from OCD and worries about everything. His condition is so severe that he rarely leaves home. Dan is angry, because his older brother Alex has left home and he feels lost. Initially, he takes it out on Alex, whom he perceives as weak and ineffectual, but the boys’ mothers force them together on a garden building project and the understanding that develops between is healing for both.

 

I hope one of these might be of interest for your teenager. Better still, take them along to the library or bookshop and let them choose something themselves.

I’d love to hear what your teens are reading just now. 

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