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Sunday 18 February 2024

The end of the month is nigh so this is a reminder for the Woodbridge Book Group. If you are planning to come along for our delayed first meeting of the year on Monday 26 February, please reply to this email and I'll confirm the details (it's been a while since we were last together!).

We'll be discussing 'Transcendent Kingdom' by Yaa Gyasi and it'll be interesting to see whether we agree with the praise quotes listed on the cover - it 'really sings', 'a novel for all times', 'absolutely transcendent'. They're not really telling us much are they?

Often, though, we've found that the blurbs on the back cover or the quotes on the front have left us at best puzzled and at worst misled! We rarely have the same sense of humour as the people championing a book, for example.

There was a great article about blurbs, reviews and praise quotes written by Helen Lewis for The Atlantic recently, an extract printed in The Week. 

She claims 'blurbs have always been controversial - too clichéd, too subject to cronyism - but lately, as review space shrinks and the noise level of the marketplace increases, the pursuit of ever more fawning praise from luminaries has become absurd'.

Every book is important, it seems, or 'electrifying, essential, profound, a masterpiece, vital, compelling, revelatory, myth-busting, masterful, elegantly written, brave, lucid and engaging, indispensable, enlightening, courageous, powerful'. (While I rarely use many of these words, it makes me a little self-conscious in posting my reviews after reading this article!).

Because there are far fewer pages dedicated to serious and considered book reviews in our newspapers, publishers look to celebrities and established writers to endorse new titles (who do so in the hope and expectation that the praise will be reciprocated!?). And this mainly to reach booksellers and online promotions - they're not really thinking about the ordinary reader, it seems. 

Though it's tempting to think this is yet another example of life today being topsy turvy, we should be mindful of good old George Orwell. Apparently he agreed with his friend and fellow writer Cyril Connolly that they would 'gush' about each other's new books. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," he wrote, apparently. And for other examples of historic puff quotes, and much more, Helen Lewis suggests we look to a study about book marketing, called 'Blurb Your Enthusiasm' by Louise Wilder. I'll add it to my list...



Thank you for reading.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Right, on Wednesday it's Valentine's Day. I'm sure you've noticed. Whether you've been walking past shop window displays or viewing messages in your inbox, hearts and roses have been the thing over the past few weeks.

But for publishers, romance isn't just a big deal for a week in February. Certainly in the USA, romance is the bestselling book genre and the fastest growing.

It's always been popular, and readers of romantic fiction are known for devouring several books a week so it's been successful commercially, but these books and authors have always been a little 'under the radar' and treated with some condescension.

The pandemic is believed to have changed things. People were looking for escapism, and romance led that trend.

Authors such as Colleen Hoover and Sarah Maas have achieved huge followings, the BookTok phenemenon has made romantic fiction attractive and acceptable for a younger audience, and tv series such as Bridgerton have also made romance 'cool'.

The romance writer Beth Reekles says 'Romance offers you the ability to switch off and say  "I'm just going to enjoy this. It doesn't have to be productive or value-adding, it's just something I like and I"m going to indulge in. It's no longer a guilty pleasure, it's just a pleasure."'

Sadly I don't have a romance novel to recommend this week, but will be looking out for something to mention soon. We could all do with a guaranteed happy ending, couldn't we?!



Thank you for reading.

Sunday 28 January 2024

While last week I highlighted the growing trend in companionably but quietly reading together, this week we're reminded of the pleasure of reading out loud!

From 27 January to 4 February it is officially National Storytelling Week aimed at encouraging a love of reading in children.

From our own experience we know how storytelling develops a child's vocabulary, expands their horizons and improves their ability to learn. It can inspire and inform, spark empathy and entertain.

Quite a responsibility if you think about it too much, so the LoveReading website has posted an essay giving some tips on effective storytelling.

The key, though, is your own passion and enthusiasm for a story. Seeing and hearing someone lost in the delight and wonder of a story which is special to them is both powerful and infectious.

But it isn't something just for children to enjoy, is it? 

Last month I mentioned the Icelandic tradition of sharing stories on Christmas Eve. At Jolabokaflod family and friends gather together and listen to each other read out loud.

In the dark nights, candles are lit for storytelling evenings in historic venues celebrating the work of MR James or Dickens.

There are play reading groups, often held in local libraries.

And there are couples who read together in bed at night. I know I have heard about people who do this but can never remember any details! A quick Google search found an American couple prepared to share their experience, though.



Thank you for reading.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Readers and writers are thought of as solitary creatures. Even though we now have BookTok, blogging, social media and author appearances and events, it's still understood that the actual business of reading and writing needs to be done in isolation. 

But this isn't always the case...

I visited the London Library this week, in St James's Square behind Piccadilly. Founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, it has always been a popular haunt of writers, actors and creatives and remains a place where people go to be among others working and studying. It encourages application and industry, the librarians say, to see others immersed in their projects. And apparently 700 books were completed last year by members of the London Library.

This library is one where silence or 'quiet' is still important and, though we can be so lost in a good book that we can be unaware of conversations or activities around us, reading is often best without distractions. 

So I've been intrigued to discover a new trend rising up in bookshops and also bars and cafes - the silent book club!

I read about it first in a mailing from a clothing company! White Stuff reported on the Silent Reading Club in Oxford which is part of a growing national and international community. 

Founded in San Francisco in 2012, the Silent Book Club is an opportunity to enjoy books, friends and drinks. People gather at an appointed time and place, order food or drinks, introduce their books to each other, then settle down for an hour of silent reading. When they've finished, they can chat together, or not.

And the New York Times recently reported on Reading Rhythms which are reading 'parties' but based on the same idea of an hour's silent reading!

Doesn't it sound great?! Certainly in a city, it seems a lovely way to meet new, like-minded people.

And I've seen that there are two bookshops in the eastern region who are also offering this opportunity.

The Book Hive in Norwich has Page Against the Machine - a quiet hour in the shop every Wednesday where you can read whatever you like without distraction, with wine and tea provided.

And Red Lion Books in Colchester is also trying out the idea for its customers. 

Well, I can't offer a silent book club for Woodbridge just yet, but it will soon be time for us to meet to discuss the title we've been reading together for the past couple of months. 

On Monday 29 January we'll have our first meeting of the year where we'll chat about 'Transcendent Kingdom'. I have a number of you already signed up for this meeting but if you are planning on coming along on the night, do please let me know by replying to this email.



Thank you for reading.

Sunday 14 January 2024

As the Post Office scandal has dominated Parliament and the news media in the past week, there has been a particular refrain in the debate and commentary. 'Why did it take a tv drama to bring the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history to light?'

For more than two decades hundreds of sub-postmasters throughout the country have been deceived and manipulated, tormented and maligned with devastating consequences. 

And despite tireless reporting and campaigning for a resolution, there was horrific inaction by those in the organisation itself, the authorities and the politicians. 

It is shocking and, well, terrifying really, that it has taken this long to expose such a horrific and widespread malpractice. 

But it does also show the power of television drama in bringing together a body of people engaged with the message in such a way that they were energised to say 'enough'. More than a million people signed a petition after the drama was aired.

The might of this public opinion has finally brought about meaningful decisions in Parliament.  

Chris Mason, the BBC's political editor has said of the response to the screening: 'How extraordinary. The power of drama. The momentum it has generated, the public opinion it has shifted, the government it has galvanised.'

We know that the stories we read, hear or see in books, theatre, film or television do open our eyes. We are moved and changed as we empathise with characters in often complex situations. 

Gwyneth Hughes who wrote 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office' says of drama: 'It's for reaching out across the stage or through the screen, grabbing you by the throat and saying: care about me. And when it works, it's incredibly powerful. 

'In this case, it's been put to the service of this terrible event in our country's history. If you want to really get people's attention, tell them a story. And in this case, a true story.'

Looking forward, let's hope more hard-hitting, meaningful drama is commissioned, though also as a society we might become better equipped at dealing with righting and preventing wrongs, and not wait twenty years for them to be televised?

Thank you for reading.

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