Almost $35 million for an Abstract Painting!

This just happened in London at Sotheby's evening sale (12 October 2012): Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild achieved over £21 million, that's almost $35 million, a world record for a living artist...I know, you're all thinking of Mark Rothko, Pollock, Warhol or Klimt, whose paintings have in recent years sold near or above the $100 million mark and sometimes even climbing close to $150 million. 

But here we're speaking of a LIVING artist, and that's simply amazing! 

This is a painting owned by rock star Eric Clapton. He must have celebrated this past week-end. Champagne! Caviar! Perhaps Richter wasn't quite as happy: after all, when he did this painting some 15 years ago, it didn't bring him anywhere near this sum! But there's a big consolation now: he can ask a lot more for his next work and get it!

Did that celebrity ownership help the sale? Perhaps, but I don't think so. There's an objective fact at work here:  Richter is quite simply one of the greatest late 20th century artist still alive, hanging in there - Lucien Freud was the other, but he's no longer around...

So we're left with Richter...Watch the video, you'll catch the excitement among the One Percent!

Makes you think, doesn't it?

PS:  I was just informed (mind you, like any good NYT journalist I won't give out my source, but believe me it comes from someone in the know) that when Richter started out with his abstract paintings in the 1980s, nobody wanted to buy them! Up to that point, he'd made his name making eerily blurred, highly poetic figural paintings derived from black and white photographs, and this sudden turn to abstraction was a shock and it was rejected by his clients. At the time, you could have gotten one of his abstract paintings for maybe as little as $5,000 or $10,000!

Certainly, he's come a long,long way! And it goes to show that people are not generally good at picking the winners...
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When One Powerful Woman Threatens Millions of Others...

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bangladesh's Prime Minister is threatening the future of millions of poor women in her country: she's clamping down on the one rural bank that helps them, the Grameen Bank! Once again the poor are downtrodden, beaten down by their own politicians, a scandal! Join the fight for justice, all it takes is a CLICK on your computer!

The Grameen Bank has enabled millions of women to lift themselves out of poverty by giving them tiny loans to buy animals or equipment to start earning money. But Bangladesh's jealous Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has fired its Nobel Prize winning founder Muhammad Yunus and now wants to seize control of the bank, all to silence a political rival. This takeover could break the bank and destroy millions of people's hope.

I worked in humanitarian and development aid  for 25 years, I know personally of the Grameen Bank's work, it has simply done an OUTSTANDING job helping the poor! The international community has recognized Yunus's remarkable work by awarding him the Nobel Prize - AVAAZ is right: we can't let one powerful, envious woman destroy the hopes of millions of poor rural women - a small Grameen Bank loan is their only hope to break out of poverty and feed their children!

Help AVAAZ to force Hasina to back down. Sign the petition, I just did. Here's the link:


Save the world's best bank
sign the petition

To Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina:

    Over the past three decades, Grameen has empowered millions of women and families in Bangladesh to break the shackles of poverty and inspired a worldwide microfinance revolution. You have the power to keep that hope alive. As global citizens, we urge you to stop the government takeover of Grameen Bank, starting with reversing the Grameen Bank Ordinance amendment that allows the government to bypass the people-elected board and handpick who runs the Bank.

As of October 9, Rome time 8 am: 73,428 have signed. Help AVAAZ get to 100,000!
Here's an interesting article that explains it all - gives you the info you need to take your decision:
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Is Twitter Useless For Marketing?

Nail clipper
Nail clipper in the sky (Photo credit: adrian8_8)
I can't prove it, but circumstantial evidence is in: when you tweet your wares, "buy my book", "grab this while it's free on Kindle", "get the best nail clipper and off with your nails", well...  nobody listens to you! I tried a Twitter campaign last week, just to see whether it would work. After all, I have over 2000 followers, you'd expect some results if I gave them a good deal on my just published book A Hook in the Sky. And a good deal it was: half price (a very modest $2.99 - hey, that's less than a Starbucks' latte!), surely they'd all sit up and grab the book!

Twitter In Real Life Cartoon by HubSpot
Twitter In Real Life Cartoon by HubSpot (Photo credit: HubSpot)
Can I assume there was something wrong with my Twitter campaign? I don't think so. To get around Twitter rules that you can't tweet twice the same message, I devised a fun system with a (hopefully) witty message saying "in 24 hours, the price will DOUBLE on my book...",  "in 23 hours, the price will DOUBLE..." etc. You get the idea, this was repeated every hour down to the last 30 minutes. That message therefore spanned exactly the 24 hours before the price was raised and it was even retweeted by followers (thank you for the RTs!)several times. Which means it covered all time zones. The whole world was inundated by my tweets!

Perhaps not all 2000 followers were reached, but surely a few would buy! In the advertising industry, a CTR or "click through rate" of 0,2% is considered good. It used to be much higher in the 1990s: around 3%. By 2011 it's reportedly come down to between 0,1% and 0,3%. So I should have expected to sell at least 4 copies, right? How many did I sell as a result of the campaign? One. And I'm not sure that sale had anything to do with Twitter, because it was a Goodreads author's purchase, and he emailed me saying he regretted he'd opened his email too late and hadn't caught the offer in time before the price raise (yes, I had sent a message around to my friends on Goodreads as well).

Twitter Addiction
Twitter Addiction (Photo credit: dewaldp)

Could it be that the CTR is even lower than 0,1%? Are we suffering from marketing fatigue? Personally, I think we are. Have you EVER bought a book on the basis of a tweet on Twitter? I know I haven't. I don't even download free books on my Kindle anymore, I have way too many, more than I can ever hope to read over the next five years! No, I should correct that: I still download a very few books, mostly from authors that I'd like to explore. But quite frankly, the ability Amazon gives me of downloading a free sample of a book is plenty good enough for me. I don't need whole free books! 

Yes, I know what you will say, free books populate the box on your Amazon book site which says "customers who bought this also bought..." and a whole string of titles appear, making your book look good in the company of many others. Although they are often not similar books at all - Amazon algorithms can throw up some surprising books! Also allowing the first book in a series to go free helps to sell the others, makes sense. In fact, that's exactly what I plan to do with the first book in my new series, The Phoenix Heritage, the one called Flying in the Past (you can see it in the right margin). I might even let my new short story collection Twisted go free for a couple of days, particularly as it contains two stories that are prequels to The Phoenix Heritage series. 

Christmas Will Never Be The Same Because of Tw...
Christmas Will Never Be The Same Because of Twitter [cartoon] (Photo credit: methodshop.com)

But I don't plan to let my new novel A Hook in the Sky go free, don't bank on it! I worked hard at it, it took me two years to polish it to the point where I felt I could publish it. In short, it represents a big slice of my own life, I've invested everything into it (mind you, it's not autobiographical at all, but it's still me, my fictional self). And that is not worth nothing! At $5.99, I still consider it a steal!

Now should I go on Twitter with that sort of message: A HOOK is a steal? Certainly not! I'm through with book promotions on Twitter. What about you? How do you feel about Twitter, do you view it as an effective marketing instrument? Has it worked for you? I'd be curious to know!

To help you to answer (in case you don't feel like commenting), here's a poll: 

Has Twitter Helped You in Selling Your Book(s)?
pollcode.com free polls 

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Denver Debate: Why did Obama Look Tired?

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057
Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Obama-Romney debate scores in at one for Romney, zero for Obama, that's the consensus in the media.

Romney looked determined, Obama looked tired.

Seen from the other side of the Atlantic pond, the debate was...well, slightly boring. Romney's arguments were all too predictable. How can he honestly ascribed the state of the economy to Obama? We all know Congress in the hands of the Republicans has done everything in its power to contrast and destroy Obama's efforts to stimulate the economy. Proposed government measure were regularly passed (if at all) with amendments that weakened them. Ditto for Obamacare that miraculously escaped total destruction thanks to the Supreme Court's unexpected last-minute - and somewhat partial - support.
Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection an...
Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We all know that government in America is weak, and more precisely, that it is weakened by Republicans relentless attacks. A weak government can do little to stimulate the economy, much less turn it around. Moreover, if we're in a mess, with unemployment still the number one problem in the US (but in Europe too), that has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with the rich that the Republicans support - that famous one percent. It is the rich, enjoying Bush's tax exemptions since the early 2000s that have brought about the Great Recession playing all those financial games - indeed the Wall Street bailout was the doing of Bush's government (his Treasury Secretary was an ex-Goldman Sachs man, remember?).

Why would the rich ever get us out of the Recession now if they didn't before? By what miracle will they start to create jobs when all they do is put their money in tax heavens and play in the markets with derivatives and sovereign bonds? There's much more money to be made attacking the Euro than creating jobs in industry!

More to the point: why is Romney lying, why the deceit? All this reminds me painfully of the way lies were circulated in the Soviet Union. At every street corner in Moscow in the 1970s you could see posters screaming "Mir u Mir", which means Peace on the World. Peace, really? Astounding when you knew that the one big power threatening world peace was precisely the Soviet Union!

Mitt Romney seems to have taken a leaf out of Soviet propaganda: deny reality, win with out and out lies, the Truth be damned! One thing is certain: this can of approach can tire you out, it's so hard to answer lies and keep cool. Hence Obama's tired look.

Does this mean Obama will lose the elections? Not really, not if the debate now moves away from the never-ner land of lies and onto to real, concrete issues. We're still waiting for Romney to tell us exactly how he's going to get the US out of this economic mess - Soviet propaganda tactics don't work forever, as the fall of the Soviet Union has shown!

Truth and honesty always win in the end. At least, I hope so! What's your opinion?

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Is Organic Food a Laughable Bourgeois Fad?

Stanford University
Stanford University (Photo credit: alexispz)
Recently, a famous opinion writer of the New York Times, Roger Cohen, attacked organic food twice on the basis of of a Stanford University research concluding that it has no nutritional advantage over products of traditional agriculture using pesticides and chemical additives, including hormones.

In short, organically grown food is not healthier. As Cohen put it,  it's the "romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it", it's "a fable of the pampered parts of the planet - romantic and comforting". Now he's done it again (see here), claiming he's added at least one important fact to his store of knowledge: "Hell hath no fury like an organic eater spurned".

Indeed, Roger Cohen has twice spurned organic food, fuming "organic, schmorganic" and drawing after his first attack an amazing tsunami of angry comments and blog posts. He's being accused of disinformation, of being asinine, of making the media look "out of touch with reality". (see articles below)

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem
Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where do we really stand in this maelstrom of accusations? Much of it is clearly nonsense, and I'm afraid that Cohen who's an op-ed columnist I normally read with pleasure put his foot in it. He's focused his whole argument solely on nutritional value when that is not the point for confirmed organic eaters (disclosure: I'm one of them, I worked 25 years for FAO, the UN Ogranisation for Food and Agriculture, I've rubbed shoulders with nutritionists and agricultural experts, and I think I know a thing or two about organic agriculture).

The nutritional value of organic produce is (about) the same. Surprised? A tomato is a tomato, the vitamin C in it is (more or less) the same, full stop. The problem with modern agriculture is elsewhere: all those chemical additives that are added, from pesticides to fertilizers, from antibiotics to hormones. Any organic eater will tell you he/she is willing to spend more to have chemical-free stuff in their plate. Also, it happens to taste better (that's no small advantage in my view - I love to eat well!)

Moreover in FAO where I worked, organic agriculture was viewed as a major piece of experimental agriculture needed to arrive at a modern agriculture capable of feeding the explosively growing world population - because there's a problem with pesticides and other chemicals: after a while, they don't work, productivity goes down. So you need to reduce the use of chemicals and rely whenever possible on organic agricultural techniques. Also OGMs, long thought to be a solution (by incorporating insect-resistent genes in the plant etc), look now like they are hitting a wall: there's increasing evidence that they may have other very worrying side-effects on human health. In France, some serious research was recently done on rats fed with genetically modified maize and it showed beyond any reasonable doubt that OGM corn had devastating effects on their kidneys, that it caused tumors and was in fact cancerogenous. This of course has fueled once more the debate in Europe where OGMs have long been resisted  on the basis of the "cautionary principle" and European Union institutions are now considering banning the import and consumption of OGM plants altogether, a difficult decision considering how much of  modern agriculture economically depends on them.
English: Riesling vine in organic agriculture,...
Riesling vine in organic agriculture, Germany. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Stanford study that is causing so much debate in the US  is not new research but a meta-analysis (i.e. it pulled together data from 237 recent studies to permit a balanced overview and evaluation of the question). Actually, on closer examination its findings comfort as much organic eaters as organic haters of the Roger Cohen variety. For a NYT summary of the Stanford study conclusions, see here.

Notice something unusual? Yes, the title of the article: "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce". That, simply put, is very misleading. The study does not actually question the advantages of organic agriculture. It found that organic produce was less likely (and that's to be expected) to retain traces of pesticides; that organic pork and chicken were less likely to be contaminated by antibiotic resistent bacteria; that organic milk contained more Omega 3 acids considered beneficial for the heart. The Stanford scientists also found (in the words of the NYT article) that "38 percent of conventional produce tested in the studies contained detectable residues, compared with 7 percent for the organic produce. (Even produce grown organically can be tainted by pesticides wafting over from a neighboring field or during processing and transport.) They also noted a couple of studies that showed that children who ate organic produce had fewer pesticide traces in their urine."

Actually, as the NYT article points out,  reduction of exposure to pesticides is a major reason to move to organic food, especially for pregnant women and their young children. Last year,  three studies by scientists at Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan showed that children of pregnant women exposed to higher amounts of pesticides known as organophosphates, had on average, in elementary school, I.Q.’s several points lower than those of their peers.

It is curious that a study with such supportive conclusions for organic eaters should have been presented in this negative light - but then, we all know that good news are no news...Personally, I would like to add that the Stanford study was deficient in other respects as well:
(1) it did not take into account factors like taste;
(2) lumping together studies can lead to conclusions looking stronger than they actually are (for example, it erroneously left out a study on strawberries showing that organic ones contained more vitamin C than conventional ones);
(3) it concluded that the level of pesticide residue, while higher in conventional fruits and vegetables, was almost always under the allowed safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency - the implication being that it did no harm to humans.

That is an implication I would contest. It overlooks the result of eating such food overtime with the consequent accumulation of residues in our organism. Ditto for hormones.  Perhaps the Stanford scientists couldn't find any study addressing this kind of issue: the effects of chemical additives over time.

Have you ever wondered why we suffer from an obesity epidemic that no amount of dieting seems to solve and that it happens by chance to coincide with the rise of modern agriculture and the explosive use of chemicals? Now is that really a chance coincidence? Moreover the epidemic started in the United States and is now spreading to Europe, neatly reflecting the timing in the birth and growth of "big modern agriculture" on both sides of the Atlantic pond...But of course, there's still no definitive study on the effects of growth hormones that we get from the meat we eat, or for that matter, on possible cancerous effects.

Perhaps there are some vested interests slowing down research, but we don't believe in conspiracies now, do we? 

To my friends and followers:
TOMORROW (October 1) THE PRICE DOUBLES! Hurry to get your copy.
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A World Threatened by War Needs a Savvy American President

Oil painting by Claude Nougat (2005- Afghanistan)
Ours is a world threatened by war yet foreign policy is hardly at the heart of the American elections except every once in while (e.g. when the American Ambassador to Libya was killed). That is a pity. Because what the world needs is for the biggest military power on earth to be guided by someone who knows what he's doing. Someone with knowledge and experience, with a historical memory, with a capacity to evaluate a situation quickly and dispassionately. Yes, control over emotions is paramount.

Of the two candidates, which is the better one? Obama we know, we are well aware that he "leads from behind". Some people try to make it sound negative but it really means several very positive things: he doesn't rush into a situation, he first watches what is happening, he listens to different opinions, he evaluates and takes a decision only after having duly reflected on it. He doesn't go at it alone, he likes to work in concert with America's allies, including within the United Nations. This is in line with what the international community expects of its most powerful member. He's a reliable partner and a thoughtful one who puts the people's needs and welfare upfront.

Romney, on the other hand, is a wild card. And he's shown that he understands precious little of either foreign policy or how to go about it. He accumulates gaffes (e.g. when he told Londoners that they'd made mistakes in organizing the Olympics) and he seems stuck back in time, in the Cold War. He views Russia and China as America's arch enemies. He's a staunch supporter of Israel - nothing unusual here, America traditionally supports Israel - but he's taken it one step further, saying that he saw no possibility of ever resolving the conflict with Palestine. Rejecting the two state solution from the outset means destroying any possibility of negotiation and being open to the idea of a never-ending war. Can Israel really afford a 100 years war and survive in the long term?

Aren't we all supposed to try and make our world peaceful?  

Hot spots are multiplying, from Syria and Mali (both embroiled in civil war) to China and Japan contending for rocks in the South China Sea (but they do come with resources), and of course, Israel threatening Iran because of its nuclear pretensions and Iran angrily countering back. This has always been a warring planet - according to the Uppsala Conflict Data program and other United Nations sources, there are at anytime always at least some 20 on going conflicts around the world, and ever since the US started on its "global war on terror" (Iraq and Afghanistan) there is strong expectation that more wars will come over the next four years, notably against Iran . Refugee camps are expanding faster than Internet, and emergency aid has never been so active.  Intolerance is on the rise, Muslims react ever more violently to pamphlets, films and cartoons satirizing their religion and Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, would like to see criticism of Muslims banned worldwide, saying  "the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity – it has encouraged it.” 

With world population growing explosively and youth unemployment on the rise everywhere shutting out any chance at a decent living, it should come as no surprise that we are continually on the brink of war or actually thrown in it.

Which is precisely why we - the whole world -  desperately need an American President who is a compassionate, balanced individual, not a warmonger. 

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To Avoid Marketing Pitfalls on the Net, Tip #1: Watch What you Click!

On my Amazon page yesterday, I couldn't believe it: a naked woman, crouching and looking sexy had replaced my sedate author picture. Judge for yourself:

That's not me, that was never me, help! My site had been hacked, I was sure of it. I ran to Twitter and shared my alarm with a raffle of anxious tweets!

But wait a minute. 

That picture is a painting of mine! Sure, look here:

It's that sexy nude that plays a pivotal role in A Hook in the Sky (for fictional purposes, it is meant to be painted by my protagonist). Did some nasty trickster copy it from Picasa album (where I keep my photos online) and paste it over my photo? Someone with a deviant sexual obsession? All sorts of wild theories flashed through my mind as I walked over to the hairdresser and had a haircut.

I couldn't wait to get back to my computer and try and figure out what had happened. I was certain I'd have to do all sorts of difficult things like change my password and warn Amazon...

Well, once I looked at it from the inside (going in editing mode), I realized I was the unwitting culprit of this mess: I had uploaded pictures related to my book in the wrong order, giving first place to the naked woman...So the sexy lady turned up on the author page and I didn't. Mea culpa!

I made the change, if you go now to my page you'll see it's all in order, click here...I do look rather boring, don't I? All the steamy sex is gone, sigh...It would have been more fun if I'd been really hacked or better still, if she'd been the author, right? An Indie author gone stark raving mad, showing off naked, why not? After 50 Shades, anything goes, that would have been a real marketing scoop!

Moral of the story: in the heat of promoting your book and getting your Amazon author page to look perfect, make sure you upload your book-related pictures in the right order! More generally: whatever you click, check it again...

Did anything silly like this ever happen to you?

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Baby Boomer Novels: an Explosive New Genre in Book Publishing

Amazon and other publishers take note: Baby Boomer novels, or BB novels, are about to storm the publishing scene! Actually Hollywood has already caught on and has recently been churning out movies clearly aimed at a senior audience, reaping success, most recently with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel about British retirees cavorting in India, featuring a top-notch cast of veteran actors including Judy Dench and Maggie Smith, both 76. Other noteworthy are RED (ex-Cia agents on the rampage with Bruce Willis and a fantastic Hellen Mirren) and Larry Crowne (a middle-aged Tom Hanks goes back to college after being fired and whizzes around on a vespa with Julie Roberts). The list is long and I'm sure you can add to it your own favorite movie featuring greying heads!

OLD AGE CAN BE FUN, FREE TO DO WHAT YOU WANT...BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT? (Photo credit: roberthuffstutter)
As reported by the media research firm GfK MRI (see Brooks Barnes NYT article, 25/2/2011) the percentage of American moviegoers in the over 50 population has grown explosively since 1995: up 67 percent by 2010! That means some 45 million people went to the movies that year as opposed to 27 million fifteen years ago. A sea-change!

Aging is no longer something one doesn't talk about except in whispers. On the contrary! The advertising and cosmetics industries are already aware that there's a huge market out there, with the wave of retiring boomers.

But let's go through the facts one by one.

Start with demography, yes, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it's the demography, stupid!" The bulge in the population pyramid that was created by the post-WWII surge in births is now entering the third stage in life. The data is clear: as of now, the year of grace 2012, the American population 50 years old and over has hit 100 million. It's a tsunami: each year more than 3.5 million boomers turn 55. And if you're 65, expect to live 19 years more! Ditto for Europe and Japan, the latter with the highest proportion of elderly of any nation today. Even China is facing the issue of a fast-aging population, exacerbated by its one child population policy causing the number of young adults to plummet.

Remember how boomers when they came of age some 45 years ago brought vast changes to the economy and cultural life? We got the civil rights movement, feminism, the greens etc. Monica Williams-Murphy, an emergency physician and author of It’s OK to Die, fully expects them to transform end-of-life care and "seek more control over the dying process", even the creation of a "natural death movement" (see KevinMD.com)

And I fully expect boomers to transform the way we read. Consider: 45 years ago they launched and sustained a new genre YA (or Young Adults) novels. Sure, the concept of fiction focused on the problems of youth and aimed at a young audience had been around for a long time (think of Dickens' Great Expectations). In 1951, Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was published and it was a turning point. In the 1960s YA literature as such came into its own and only grew further in the 1970s to become a top selling genre (until recently - now it seems to be slowing down, but that's another story for another post).

Now boomers are bound to launch and sustain novels that cater to their interests and anxieties. What to do after retirement or rather, how to keep working and start a second life? 25% claim they will never stop working (according to a 2011 Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com survey). Other questions include how to meaningfully relate to the young? How to cope with a failing marriage? How to maintain good health (and yes, for many, plastic surgery to maintain a youthful look...) How to face illness and death?  

Hence the birth of the BB novel. I've already mentioned in previous posts Deborah Moggach and Louis Begley as  leading exponents in this new genre. I'm sure you can think of others and please add them in your comments below!

No doubt my latest novel, A Hook in the Sky, is quintessentially a BB novel. Would you believe it? When I published it, it hit  #11 on Kindle's best selling list for the category of...aging! Yes I know, this is weird. But I had a categorizing difficulty here: there's no fiction yet that is classified as "coming-of-old-age" - so to try and find a category in Kindle that zeroes in on senior citizens I had to pick "aging", as of now a non-fiction category. But clearly people looking for serious stuff to investigate the last slice of life must have stumbled on my book...Thank you to all of you who bought it, and let me know what you think of it!

Just in case you think BB novels are reserved for the old and grey among us, well, you're in for a surprise. Just as adults read YA novels, young adults read BB novels. I've had the proof of this at a meeting on Goodreads (held 18 September) with author Deborah Moggach: a 15 year-old told her that her book had given her "an insight to the thoughts and feelings of the older generation in Britain, which I really liked, as it is something you don't usually read, or see in a film these days!"

Indeed, "something you don't usually read or see in a film"... but it is bound to happen more and more often, I'm sure of it. 

What is your view? Do you agree that BB novels are a new, fast-rising genre?

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