Receive my weekly message direct in your inbox each Sunday evening, by registering here.

My recent newsletters are also available from here.

Sunday 17 March 2024

This week I paid a fleeting visit to the London Book Fair and had a rather overwhelming reminder of the vast and vibrant world of publishing.

Amidst the acres of stands, the thousands of attendees and exhibitors, and the intense programme of workshops, talks and seminars, I stumbled across an author whose comments have kept me thinking all week.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the creator of a number of bestselling novels and has a not insubstantial social media following.

I was going to attend her session out of curiosity and located the venue in good time, intending to rock up at the last minute (if I didn't find something better to do!). However, a good hour before she was due to speak, the queue stretched far into the distance, so I joined it, though felt a little out of place among all the glamorous young women clutching their phones.

Taylor has written eight novels including 'The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo' and, most recently, 'Carrie Soto is Back' - which I have read, though initially struggled to remember the plot.

Well, I will now be reading all her books - what a phenomenal speaker. So engaging, humble, personable, relatable and articulate. She was amazing. But my point is... 

She explained why she had played with format in her books. (I haven't read 'Daisy Jones and the Six' so I can't list what she does but I think it's things like emails, news clippings, including real people and events, etc.) She said that she wanted readers to lose themselves completely in her books so mixes historical facts and familiar incidents and individuals with her make-believe world and characters, leaving the two indistinguishable. 

I've never been sure of this melding of fact in fiction but hearing this young (I've just looked her up and she's 40...), dynamic and thoughtful novelist explaining why she takes this approach, made me want to revisit the idea, at least objectively (as a writer as much as a reader)!

And I didn't have long to explore it, either. The book we were discussing in our Framlingham Book Group this month was 'The Romantic' by William Boyd which begins with the author saying he had discovered some letters and diaries of the adventurer Cashel Greville Ross and had turned this life into a novel.

So we learn how Ross experienced momentous historic events such as the Battle of Waterloo and met notable figures such as Byron and Shelley.

But it's not true. The whole book, the whole story is invented. There were no diaries or letters. 

Readers only know it's all made up if they discover interviews with the author describing the writing of the book. So when we've trusted the author and believed his letter to the reader only to find that he's been playing a trick on us - how does that make us feel?

You needed to be at the book group on Wednesday to hear the different responses and emotions it engendered. 

On that note - the Woodbridge Book Group is meeting a week tomorrow... And for the first time we're discussing a graphic novel (scroll down for details). How will we respond to that form of storytelling? If you'd like to come along to participate or to listen in, please email to let me know and I'll send you the details. 

Thank you for reading.

Sunday 10 March 2024

I remember reading, some years ago now, how the current generation would be adopting minimalist lives. No need for shelves of CDs or books, they would have everything on their phones or tablets, so they would be relieved of the clutter the rest of us endure.

But it seems this may not be the case after all. An article in the 'Financial Times' recently (last month - I've had a bit of a backlog to work through) suggested that the first major design trend of 2024 is 'bookshelf wealth'.

There are thousands of TikTok influencers who are realising that bookshelves, and books, might be 'cool'. So, carefully curated collections are presented on reels or feeds to present the sought-after image.

There's no need to read all these books, of course, as it's about the look of the thing. Not even titles or authors are important as books can be selected for the colour or appearance of the spine (and not even that, some people feel a desirable look is to have books turned backwards, their spines facing inwards!).

And on a slightly different tack, there was an article in the 'Guardian' last week where a young man had effectively lined the walls of his house with copies of the video of the film 'Titanic'. 

I'm not sure what to conclude from all this save to say that however we choose to collect them or present them, we are all hugely privileged to have books so readily available and even if these influencers haven't chosen books to read now, by having them close to hand, perhaps they'll realise what gems they have one day soon.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday 3 March 2024

This week, on Thursday, it's World Book Day. It's not something I've ever been directly involved in but we've all seen the newspaper, tv and social media items presenting children dressed as their favourite book characters, and heard of the struggles their parents faced in creating the costumes.

This year it seems that, due to the increased time and financial pressures we're all facing, there's less emphasis on the fancy dress. So a variety of other initiatives have been introduced to encourage fun, creativity and enjoyment through reading. 

There's one easy and simple way to do this, of course, and that is to share enthusiasm - for parents to spend dedicated time with their child reading together, for teachers and other adults to show their unrestrained delight for particular titles.

From my own childhood I remember my mum reading Beatrix Potter stories to me before I went to sleep and at primary school the last period of the day would be spent with the teacher reading aloud from 'Stig of the Dump', 'Smith', 'The Children of Green Knowe' and 'A Wrinkle in Time'.

It's wonderful to see children discover a book that has unleashed in them a passion for stories and storytelling, which they will return to time and again, recognising that it has changed them in some way.

In recent years, leading a book group at a local primary school, I've seen that wonder and excitement in a number of books, notably 'Boy 87' by Ele Fountain, 'October, October' by Katya Balen and 'The Final Year' by Matt Goodfellow.

It's so important that we dedicate time and space for children to make these discoveries, and that we get alongside them to share our experience of all that books mean to us.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday 25 February 2024

We will be meeting in Woodbridge tomorrow to discuss 'Transcendent Kingdom' by Yaa Gyasi, a fascinating novel which explores a wide variety of themes including the relationship between science and faith. It will be interesting to discover what we all think of it (if you haven't done so already, please email to let me know if you are coming to the meeting). 

On a slightly different tack, but looking at how science and the arts can work in tandem, I was interested to read an article in The Observer last week about a surgeon in Portugal who is encouraging his students to read poetry in order to better understand and empathise with their patients.

Joao Luis Barreto Guimaraes haș launched a course in the fundamentals of modern poetry at Porto University's medical facility. He wants students to connect holistically with their future patients, instead of viewing them as a medical problem to solve.

A published poet himself, he has drawn on other poet-medics for the course reading list (the only one I recognise is William Carlos Williams, an American paediatrician). But also introduces poems which are overtly offering students a concise but powerful understanding of the patient experience. For example, there's Wendy Cope's poem 'Names' (in her collection 'Serious Concerns') which I find incredibly moving. And John Stone's poem 'Talking to the Family'.

In the newspaper article, Guimaraes says: 'These days doctors often don't have time to stop and think, so everything gets reduced to the technical and mechanical. What I try to convey to the students is that, as with a poem, each of their patients is unique.'

Thank you for reading.

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.