Catherine Milne on Books about books and declaring yourself a reader

When I went to boarding school, I took only one really personal object with me. 

It was my mother’s old copy of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, the old Penguin English Library edition.  I can still see that cover now.  I was only ten years old at the time.  Of course I hadn’t actually read the book. Nor would I, in fact, for several years.  And even then, it took me many more years before I actually really read it and loved it. But I packed it in my suitcase, nonetheless.  What I was doing with that book, I only realise now in retrospect (call me slow), was that I was nailing my colours to the mast – I was declaring myself a reader.  That book was as clear a statement of intent that I could manage to the world that I was about to enter, a world of ringing bells, hockey sticks and cross country runs.

Books have a special kind of power in this world.  Every reader knows this, that books can be talismans, shields, mascots and good luck charms.  They get us through dark times and times when we’re helplessly, hopelessly heartbroken or shattered in some way. They are time-travel devices through which we can step through to other worlds, other experiences, other lives.  They can charm, delight, divert, entertain and comfort us, but they can also be incendiary devices that go off in our heads – inspiring, challenging, terrifying, confronting and wrenching us.  They have the capacity to reveal the world to us, and change the way we see the world.  They can crack us open and put us back together again in ways we do not even realise at the time.

For readers, books hold an incredibly important place in our lives.  And as readers, we gravitate towards books which try and explain why this is.  There is a grand tradition of books written about books – or, more precisely perhaps, about the power of words to enhance and shape our lives.  Just offhand, I can reel off several: The Book Thief, In the Shadow of the Wind, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, The Bookshop, An Uncommon Reader – and then of course there’s all the novels about writers and the writing life:  New Grub Street, Flaubert’s Parrot, Lost for Words by St. Aubyn….

And now we can add another novel to this particular pantheon, John Purcell’s The Girl on the Page. John is a giant of a figure (literally) in the Australian book industry.  He’s Director of Books at Booktopia, the Australian online book retailer, and a passionate and enthusiastic advocate for books and authors in this country.  But before that, he was a second-hand bookseller for ten years, and it’s out of that experience more than any other that this novel was born.  The Girl on the Page is a novel that I am so proud to publish:  set in the world of publishing in contemporary London, it’s riotously sharp, witty and wicked, packed full of inhouse jokes and pointed jabs about the state of publishing today (yes, there were times I laughed uneasily, reading it).  It tells the story of Amy Winston, a hotshot young editor on a downward spiral, who is tasked to make a bestseller out of the latest manuscript from literary great, the elderly Helen Owen.  It’s a case of worlds – and agendas – colliding.  And by the end of the novel, John shifts gears to bring about an ending that genuinely shocked and deeply moved me.  But the real joy of this novel isn’t just that it’s a compulsively readable page-turner (which it is), but that at heart it’s also a deeply serious, thoughtful novel about the cost of art, about ambition and integrity – and the enduring power of great literature.

This is a novel that is just imbued with a deep love and reverence for those great writers and their books, those novels we love and honour, that touch us and change our lives. I can’t wait for this book to reach readers – for it to be discussed at book groups, in cafes, at homes and in bars. I think if I’d told ten-year-old me that one day, she’d publish a book like this, she would have been proud.


The Girl on the PageThe Girl on the Page by John Purcell

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

Posted on September 21, 2018 by

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"Catherine Milne on Books about books and declaring yourself a reader"

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