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Wonderworks - Angus Fletcher *****

If you are interested in both writing and science this is an unmissable book. Reading can not just impart information, but can influence the way that we feel. Angus Fletcher describes 25 literary techniques (many also applicable to film and TV), ranging from those known to the Ancient Greeks to modern innovations, that can have a particular influence on our feelings and state of mind. Interestingly Fletcher describes this as technology - devices to make something happen. But rather than being a purely philosophical exploration, what lifts the book significantly is that for each of these techniques, Fletcher describes how studies of the impact on the brain show the physical effects occurring in different parts of the brain as a result.

The chapters (one for each technique) end with a faintly self-help feeling bit - for instance, how you can use the 'clear your head' technique by reading certain texts, but that really isn't the point. This isn't a self-help book, it's a chance to explore the nature of storytelling and how narrative techniques influence the brain. As a writer, I found the storytelling technology part most interesting, but there's no doubt that having the science part gives the whole idea more weight.

Some of the techniques are fairly obvious, and some may be very familiar to those who have studied literature at university level - but there will be some surprises for almost everyone. There's a real feeling of recognition of something that suddenly makes sense (itself arguably one of the techniques). In fact Fletcher, presumably consciously, does make use of many of the techniques in the book itself.

I did have a few small issues. Some of the techniques felt a bit samey - I would have preferred a shorter list with more distinction (it would also have made the book a bit less chunky, as it seemed to go on too long). Fletcher also has a tendency to state as if fact things that are possible but uncertain (or even downright inaccurate). For example, he says that there is no evidence for human pheromones where in fact there is evidence consistent with pheromones, but (if they do exist) the pheromones have not been definitely identified. He also has Galileo looking through telescope at the sun (there is some dispute as to whether he did and his telescope was too weak to blind him or he projected the image) and seems to suggest Galileo was the first to discover sunspots, which he definitely wasn't.

Again, possibly using one of the techniques described himself, Fletcher's language sometimes was unnecessarily flowery, overusing, for example, double-barrelled adjectives. In fact, one thing he really didn't cover, which would have been interesting, was circumstances where a writer who thinks they are cleverly using a technique to influence our emotions or state of mind, instead irritates the reader, or makes them give up reading entirely (I've done this with three books in my time, one of which was a supposed classic) and/or makes them throw the book across the room.

This is a book that is fresh and inspiring. I'd definitely recommend that anyone who writes (or wants to write) should read it, but also anyone with an interest in how the brain is affected by surprisingly subtle influences. A real find.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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