Reader Interview Series – Denise has her say

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

I’m delighted to have Denise on the blog today talking about her reading habits and historical fiction. Denise sounds like a remarkable woman. She’s studied many languages, been a pastry chef and worked in the antiques trade. How cool is that! Leave a comment, I’m sure she’ll be happy to respond.

Tell us a little about yourself.   I am a female, who just turned 60 years old. I live in Canada, in the rural part of Hamilton, Ontario. I graduated from McMaster University with a BA in French and German and then from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education. As well as French and German, I studied Italian, Russian and Polish. Of course when I graduated, there were no teaching jobs, so I joined the family business of antique dealers. In the 80’s I went back to school to get a degree in Culinary Management from George Brown College. When in school, I won in a chocolate competition and a First Place in the Taste of Canada competition. I then worked as a pastry chef for several years and returned to the family business, when my mother became paralyzed. I love to garden, cook and read.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.   I never really counted how many books, I read per year, until I learned to use a computer and joined Goodreads (about 2 years ago). I learned to read as a 3 year old, when my mom would read books to me and point to each word as she read. From that time on, I collected books, many, many, many books. I live in a 16 room house and I still have few book shelves. Almost every room is filled with books. In the room I eventually hope will be my library, I have counted over 300 boxes of books! I am lucky, since being in the antiques trade I was able to buy boxes of exceptional books from estate sales and also from private homes. When we shipped containers of antiques from England, I was able to obtain real treasures, very early editions of Dickens, bound in leather with gold edging.

I collect and read all sorts of books, fiction and non-fiction, classic literature (all the Victorian classics in England, France, Germany and Russia), not so much American although I do read John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and the American mystery writers, Erle Stanley Gardner, Michael Shayne and the Thin Man, Dr. FuManchu stories, etc.. I love traditional English mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth and company and now the modern English style mysteries such as Ian Rankin, Quintin Jardine, Peter Robinson, Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Bartholomew Gill, etc. I love all history books, some science too, gardening books, biographies most definitely, travel books, plays, signed first editions, special editions, and of course cookbooks! My books are in many languages, even Chinese and Arabic (neither of which I read) and Harry Potter in Icelandic. I prefer novels and plays over short stories, although novellas aren’t bad. Medium length books, 400 pages or less over those over 800 pages, since the story in long books has to be exceptional for me to finish all at once. If it isn’t, I get bored sometimes and have to start another book. Also, with arthritis in the hands now, those 800 pagers can be too heavy and cumbersome. I don’t finish one book completely, as a rule, before I start another. I have been known to have up to 6 books on the go at once, a habit formed in university, when you read books from many courses during the same time period. Sometimes, I will read in a marathon, say all the books a writer wrote or at least a dozen before I switch to another topic.

Forty years ago, before the advent of computers I would actually catalogue my books in ledgers. As I read a book, I would check it off. Now, I have started doing this on my laptop in Goodreads.

From Goodreads, I see that I read well over 150 books a year. This year, I have already read over 90 books. Now, I usually read at night, in the living room or kitchen. I typically read 400 pages per day. Almost all my thousands of books are hardcover, my preferred book choice, although, now the trade paperbacks are better quality than the old regular ones. Last year I read under 10 ebooks, since I was reading them on the computer. For Christmas my husband bought me a Kindle Fire HDX, so I am now reading more ebooks. I have over 600 downloaded. But I still prefer hardcovers. Unfortunately they are getting harder to find in local bookstores. I can’t ever see myself choosing strictly ebooks over real books, like some of my cousins have done. I love the feel of the pages too much, the dust jackets, the different textures of bindings ( I even have some books bound in suede, cloth and wood!) and the smell of books, old and new! On my tombstone, maybe will be, “She died from Librarian lung!” Yes, there is such a disease!

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Well disposable income, naturally, is the biggest factor. Since used is cheaper than new, I buy that way, in stores catering just to used books, from charity shops like Value Village, from antique shops, from auction sales, from garage sales, online from Ebay. Sometimes though, you see a new book that you just have to have. I can’t pass a book store without going in! And then there is Amazon! And that one click buying! And those beautiful covers of real artwork from the Masters! They just scream, “buy me, buy me!” I’m a sucker for maps too! And those gorgeous, colour pictures in non-fiction books!

Books are at the top of my gift list, both to receive and to give. The local bookstore is my one stop place to buy all my Christmas gifts for others.

My grandmother grew up on a farm in pre-World War I in Poland. When the war came, there was no school, since they were located on the front. She never went past elementary school. When she would see me with all my books, she would shake her head. My reply to her was, ”Books are food for the mind! A necessity of life!”

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    Historical fiction is a category, that I have just started to delve into. Although strictly speaking, that isn’t true. In public school, I read “the Odyssey and the Iliad”. Then in high school, there was Rosemary Sutcliffe and books about Mary Tudor (sister to Henry VIII) and Desiree. Amongst the old books from auctions were many historical fiction works like James Fenimore Cooper’s Leather Stocking tales, Jack London, Pearl S. Buck and many book club books from the 50’s were historical fiction.

But now, I have started reading authors who write specifically for the historical fiction market. I tend to like authors who write historical fiction that is fairly true to real history and don’t re-write history to make it closer to a fantasy tale. For example, there was an author who made up historical events and wrote chapters about these events to add to the life of Mary Queen of Scots, how she visited the Pope in Rome and what happened there.

You can identify those, who have done a lot of research, in order to encompass all the sights and smells of the period. I don’t mind fictional characters in a story about real people, as long as the story is believable and does not become far-fetched. Historical fiction brings different dimensions to the personalities of people, who really lived. It makes you think about how these people actually were. You also learn your history.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I like historical fiction from all time periods, from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans up to World War II. I like stories about war. I’m not squeamish! After all, war is war. You can’t sanitize, if you want to be credible. Male heroes and female heroines, young and old, I like them all. I don’t mind historical romance stories, as long as they are not short on history and closer to a straight romance story. I love the historical books with time travelling in them and no, it wasn’t invented by Diana Gabaldon. Daphne duMaurier, Jack London and others before them did it too!

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    There are so many great ones out there. Where to start?

  • Alan Furst and his spies stories about World War II and France
  • Elizabeth Fremantle, Queen’s Gambit
  • Anna Belfrage, the Graham Saga
  • Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown
  • R.W. Peake, his Marching for Caesar with Titus Pullus – He wore a complete Roman soldier kit (quite heavy) and marched in Death Valley for miles. How’s that for research?
  • Victoria Wilcox, her Doc Holliday Saga
  • Sarah Morris, Le Temps Viendra 2 volumes
  • Robert Parry, Virgin and the Crab and Wildish
  • Bernard Cornwell, Oh yes!
  • Maria Duenas, The Time in Between
  • Dornita Rogers, Faces in the Fire: The Women of Beowulf
  • Ben Kane, Spartacus series
  • Julie K. Rose, Oleanna
  • Maureen Jennings and Hugh Brewster, Deadly Voyage: RMS Titanic, two great Canadian authors, whom I had the pleasure to talk with
  • Heather Webb, Becoming Josephine
  • Bad Elephant, Far Stream by Samuel Hawley- the most heart wrenching book, I have ever read, about a circus elephant from 1903. I could not stop balling at the end. The elephant, named Far Stream, is the heroine and the story is told through her eyes.
  • And last but not least, your own book “Unravelled”, by M.K. Tod

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I come from a very large family with all levels of education. Many in the family are avid readers, with all diverse interests and reading habits. When I finally learned to use the computer and went on Facebook, one of my younger, distant cousins, told me about Goodreads.

It was love at first sight! At first I just had a handful of relatives, who were my friends on it and I just used it to catalogue my extensive book collection. Then I started entering the giveaways. I won some books. After I wrote the reviews, some people would like them and asked to be friends. From there it blossomed! I joined some Goodreads book groups, learned about and read new books and re-read old friends. I wish I had more time to devote to all these groups.

I would add interests on Facebook, learn about and follow different blogs, start entering those contests and win a few, all the while learning about lots of new books, new authors and making new friends. To enter contests, I learned about Twitter and how to spread the word, always spreading the word! My cousins and friends would thank me for reminding them of books, that they heard about and wanted to read, but forgot about, or thanked me for suggesting books on topics I knew they liked.

I would join Facebook groups like the English Historical Authors group, Tudor History group, Richard III groups, Women in European History and then the re-enactment groups.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Please research your books well. It shows. All the little details add to the enjoyment of the book and make the reader feel that they are actually living in the time period.

I was lucky to attend lectures given by local authors and to get the opportunity to talk with them afterwards, one on one, about their books. During the lectures I was amazed at the lengths historical fiction authors go to, in order to prepare for and to write their works.

If your book is about a historical personage, like Mary Queen of Scots, don’t tinker a lot with known facts. It will turn off history buffs, especially those readers who read your non-fiction historical works too. They will not want to buy more of your historical fiction.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on? Your works bring so much pleasure to your reading public. Thank you!

Well, not only are we learning about individuals’ reading habits but we are also learning a lot about their lives! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Denise. For someone relatively new to using technology for reading, you have become very active. And for someone who began reading historical fiction more recently, you have a great list of favourites!

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About the Author

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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14 Responses

    1. How wonderful. Thanks Denise for sharing your memories and thoughts. I hope you avoid librarian lung and drowning in words! So many new to me author names as well. A few photos of book shelves would be fun. I have just worked out where to put another 8ft of shelving as my books are restricted to two out of my dozen rooms. My Michelin star chef daughter and wife fill another two rooms with lovely gardening and cookery books and my tummy with good food.

  1. When I learned to cook, I would make recipes from my different cookbooks, especially my favourite,at the time, The Time Life Foods of the World series. My mother was renovating a house at the time and told me, that I had to prepare supper. After a few weeks, my dad exclaimed at one suppertime, “When are we going to have normal food again?” My mom looked at me and said, “I guess I have to start making the meals again.”, And my brother…he only wanted hamburgs and gravy for every meal.

  2. Having a wife and daughter who are wonderful cooks is a delight.

    Two days after reading your post I am still chuckling about you reading 400 pages a day and having 600 books on Kindle to read. My reading is about 60 pages a day and that must take at least an hour a day so you Denise must be a fast reader or do without sleep.

    Of the 130 or so books on my Kindle including the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare I have only read about 10% and wonder whether this is unusual. At least books on Kindle do not go off like food.

    I am also wondering how many books you may have in your house. I can visualise about 150ft of book shelf space and some 2,500 books in our home, if my arithmetic is correct.

    Good reading

    1. I have only started cataloging them on Goodreads and am already up to 653 and there are another 290 or more boxes of books to go! I am a fast reader. I read about 3 hours a day in the evening. I don’t watch much TV. When we were in grade 6 or so our class was picked to take a special speed reading course, that other students did not have to take.

        1. While reflecting on food and books in this post and comments I recall my mother used to say I would have tummy ache if I ate my food too quickly. I should slow down and enjoy the taste and texture of food and give respect to the cook for the time they have spent cooking.

          I seem to recall speed reading is about reading down the centre of the page. I wonder if by reading books quickly one loses some taste and texture?

        2. Amazingly, you still enjoy the books. I have to admit, though, that with the books, that are a bit more difficult to understand or their writing style does not really lend itself to speed reading (Wolfhall anyone?) or the ones that you really get into and lose your self in,like the Outlander books, you do tend to read not so fast, but still at a faster pace than most people.

  3. I have just finished listening to a radio programme about which fiction books and authors from the last 200 years have survived the passing of time to be still popular today and what current books may survive as popular reading into the future. Given so many authors struggle to be published at all then even when one has been published fighting for a place in history seems the next huge hurdle. Given all the authors and books mentioned in this excellent reader interview series I wonder how many well written and readable books have been lost to current readers.

    My wife and I tested a couple of authors we used to read Dennis Wheatley and R F Delderfield and see many of their books are still in the under 100,000 best sellers listing even though not on current booksellers shelves or even still in print. So as a new writer one will have to compete with these books for sales initially and on an ongoing basis. Tough going.

  4. I have not been to the library in about 12 years. When I last went, I decided to see how many books of my favourite American mystery authors, were still in the library. This was before I used a computer or had an Kindle.The authors, who I particularly wanted to look up, were Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, and Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason and Donald Lam. There were 2 from Erle Stanley Gardner (He was a very prolific writer, who wrote over 800 books.) and one from Rex Stout, who wrote at least 60 books, that I know of. I bet if I looked now, I would be lucky to find any.The only way new readers will be able to read the works of these two famous American mystery writers, is if they find them used on Ebay or in used book stores,at auctions, flea markets and garage sales or if somewhere they are online , because they are in the public domain. If they are lucky to find any, will they even know who these authors are?

  5. I agree about libraries. It is not only in fiction as the situation in non-fiction is perhaps worse. I have a copy of a lovely out of print book about a lady who sailed from Australia to Europe and back in a 26ft yacht in the 1980s. The feat I felt comparable to those of the all the sailing Dames and Knights who came afterwards. I would be willing to convert her book to an e book if I could find the rights holders. I have contacted the publisher but as I have received no response I assume my request is being treated like any other request to publish a new book.

    E books do appear to be the answer to accessing all the old authors if one knows the books exist. Who else but you is going to recall Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner? When looking for a guillotine last week on E Bay I came across someone who is cutting up old books and then scanning them to read … a short step away from producing an E book.

    1. I have just checked on Amazon and Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner have had books converted to Kindle but their old hardbacks and even some of their paperbacks are for sale at silly prices. A good story should be timeless.

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