Alison Morton, Barbara Erskine, Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Diana Gabaldon, Elizabeth Chadwick, Goodreads, Helen Hollick, historical fiction, James Michener, Ken Follett, reader insights, reader interviews, reading preferences, Rosemary Sutcliffe, searching for book recommendations, Sharon Penman
Tell us a little about yourself. Hello, my name is Leila. I am a 77 years old female, a widow of eleven years now and a pensioner. I was born in the North East coast of England and have lived here all of my life. I live alone now, apart from my four rescue house cats, Bren, Cindy, Jenty and Charlie all of whom I love to bits and they sure keep me on my toes. Healthy for most of my life, I was diagnosed with a chronic long term illness in the late eighties originally called M.E. which does limit me quite a lot as it attacks the immune system.
I was born in 1936, when there were very few books available in the shops. My mother who was a school teacher had lots of books in our home of her own, all collected over the years, but they were all too difficult for me as a little child. She did teach me to read before I began school at five years. My very first book was bought for me when I was five years old and it was called “Babar the Elephant” by Jean de Brunhoff. I can still vividly remember scuttling behind the big armchair to hide away from everyone and read and savour my first very own book. It had no colourful covers, just a plain hard back and the pages were of a poor quality with only a few pen and ink type drawings to serve as pictures. To me it was a beloved treasure.
That was the beginning of my love affair with books and the joys of reading them. I remember discovering Enid Blyton and borrowing every one of her books I could find at the children’s library as I grew older. My first was “Bimbo and Topsy” and my favourite of all her books that I read was entitled “The Castle of Adventure”. As a teacher myself, I read both of these books to my classes of junior youngsters and they loved them. Of course they banned her books from the school libraries for some odd reason, didn’t they! I then turned to such favourites with my children at school as “The Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams. It was a huge favourite and I still have the rather battered copy on my shelves at home. This book was loved by my own sons too and I often read it to them. As they grew older they loved me to read “The Hobbit” I think that book began to shape my love of good fantasy and I bought “The Lord of the Rings” for myself. It was the longest book I had ever read and enjoyed so much. It remains on my book shelves today; a firm favourite.
I like to write poetry and short stories or autobiographical thoughts in a daily journal which is something I have always done since being a child and is a lifetime hobby. I would buy notebooks from Woolworths to write little stories or personal thoughts and ideas in them. One day when I was around six years old, a German war plane flew down so low along the sea front where I was walking with my mother, we could actually see the pilot who waved to us and waggled the wings of his plane at us. He continued along the promenade then flew over the local steel works to drop his bombs. Along with everyone else out that day we were terrified. I remember being very frightened. That memory became the subject of one of my little stories I composed in my notebook!
I spend a lot of my daily hours reading, often losing track of time! Even as a much younger woman and a busy mum I would take all the family’s library tickets – four books per ticket allowed and I would get twenty books out and have them read and back for more within about a fortnight. I have three adult sons, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild. After leaving grammar school my ambition was to become a librarian and work with books, however, to my disappointment there were no posts available, so I began training for a psychiatric nursing career as there was nothing else to choose from. I found it quite soul destroying. It wasn’t right for me, so I took a post as a registry clerk in ICI. I then moved on to college for three years to train to become a Primary school teacher. My main personal subject while I was there was English literature and among other authors we had Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to study in depth.
I enjoyed many years teaching both infants and junior children. Sadly, I had to eventually give this up in my fifties due to the previously mentioned illness I suffer from. I spent many months in bed initially, unable to walk and so had the time (endless time) to read very many books. Reading kept me sane! Also I had audio books from the library to listen to. It was during this period I also learned to cross stitch. I found it very creative and completed lots of pictures.
When I lost my husband in 2003 after a long and painful illness, I had a lot of adjusting to do. I had to learn to live alone and live through bereavement. Reading, writing out my thoughts daily and listening to music saw me through the first hard months. I then decided to begin a degree in “The Humanities” with the Open University from my home. In my second year I chose English Literature to major in with various books to study, including once again the works of Jane Austen, but eventually the assignments became too much for me to complete in the time allowed because of my illness. In the end I had to make the difficult decision to give it up. I now live quietly with my four little felines and close to my family.
Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences. I honestly don’t really know just how many books I read per year; only that it must be a very large number. I always have at least six or seven books on the go that I am actually reading. Reading in bed is something I have always done throughout my life until more recent years when ill health and weakened muscles mean I find my arms ache a lot when holding up a book. Thankfully though e-books have meant I can read books on my iPhone Kindle as it is very small and light.
The hardest and probably the longest book I ever read was “War and Peace” in my late teens. I was determined to finish it but can’t say I really enjoyed it. It took me weeks to finish. There were so many Russian names that I continually lost the plot literally. In my mid teens I went through a typical young girl’s fascination with what we would now call “chick lit”, Mills and Boon books from the library. I soon got over that stage and moved on to better things. I remember Jean Plaidy and Nora Lofts being favourite authors and also Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moll Flanders”.
While at grammar school I developed a love of the classics. My favourites out of many were and still are … Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and “Villette”, all of Jane Austen’s books except “Emma” which I found tedious and most of Charles Dickens books. My next interests after leaving school were historical novels, fantasy and science fiction. I read every science fiction book in the library, Arthur Clarke being my favourite. I still love Star Trek, Star Gate, Star Wars and Dr Who on DVDs though not the books.
After enjoying my studies of ancient history at school I became fascinated with all things Roman. I collected both historical non-fiction and fiction books about the Romans. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s “Eagle of the Ninth” trilogy came first, followed by many more of her books. Most of them are still on my bookshelves to this day. I love them. I did a thesis whilst at teacher training college in which I compared her books about Roman Britain with a writer named Henry Treece who also wrote of Roman Britain and the Vikings. I recently re-read “The Queen’s Brooch” by Henry Treece about Boudicca after finding it in one of the many boxes of books sitting in my loft as there is no room for them anywhere else in my small home. Egypt was another ancient historical fiction interest which intrigued me both then and now. I am not sure why, but more recent times such as the Victorian years and the First World War never appealed much, though I did like a lot of the war poets work. From ancient history up to around medieval times would be my favourite choice when searching for historical fiction; apart from the Crusades. Again I am not sure why but I don’t enjoy that period.
Over the years I have collected very many books of all genres both fiction and nonfiction, but mainly historical and fantasy novels fill my shelves. Terry Goodkind, Robin Hobb, George Martin, Raymond Feist, Tad Williams and Juliette Marillier to name but a few, are fantasy authors I especially enjoy, though I can’t get away with Terry Pratchett for some unknown reason. Within the fantasy genre I include William Horwood’s books on Duncton Wood- all about moles, Richard Adam’s “Watership Down” Garry Kilworth’s many animal books especially his books about badgers, and the Welkin Weasels. I couldn’t possibly leave out every one of the Brian Jacques children’s books about Redwall; plus other animal books too many to mention. I do read thrillers and autobiographies now and again, but my overall favourite genre has to be historical fiction of all types. Within this genre there are so very many authors and their books that I have loved to read and continue to read; too numerous to mention here. A few of my top of the list favourites are Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Helen Hollick, Bernard Cornwell, Alison Morton, Conn Iggulden and James Michener.
Books have overtaken one room which my family has affectionately dubbed “Mum’s Library”. It is choc full of all kinds from floor to ceiling. There are book shelves everywhere else in the house too, full to bursting. More books lie scattered in piles on my bedside table and PC desk, on top of the microwave and in drawers.
When e-books came into fashion I downloaded the free Amazon kindle and began to collect all types but to be honest mainly free ones and the classics were my first choice. “Free” seemed hard to believe! Until my son bought me a Kindle Fire I didn’t bother much with e-books on my PC at all. I much prefer a “real book” as I describe a print edition. I like the feel, the smell, the attractive covers and the larger pages of real books. I like to see them around the house. They have always been a very big part of my life. I couldn’t carry my PC around to read an e-book. Even the Kindle Fire is bulky to carry to read on buses for example and there is always the fear of dropping it. Then my son bought me an iPhone and I do now use it for e-books to read on bus journeys for both short and longer distances. It saves carrying books around which can be heavy; so it is really useful, serving both as a mobile phone and a miniature library. I sometimes read from my iPhone in bed too, especially when my illness means I have muscle aches and have to rest a lot. 90% of the time at home however, I read print books. I have found too that because e-books are offered on Amazon often for free or for very small sums, I have downloaded hundreds of them, both the well known writers which are fine and the hopeful unknowns, which unfortunately are sometimes badly edited or the stories are weak but of course easily deleted. It is not much of a risk when they cost nothing.
How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases? When it comes to buying print books I rarely buy from shops now. Amazon is so easy when you can’t get out much. I think more carefully when buying print books because I want books I will read and keep. I go for either familiar authors whom I like, or new author’s books which stand out and appeal to me. The price has to influence my decisions too as often I will really want a book but am unable to afford it when it first comes out. Being able to purchase used books is something I have enthusiastically made use of a lot on Amazon in the past. Since they have stopped allowing post free purchases unless a buyer spends more than ten pounds, this has curtailed the amount of books I now buy. Obviously the genre of a book influences my purchases too, though now and again a genre I don’t usually buy will attract me or a recommendation from a friend tempts me to try. If ever one of my favourite authors has one of their print books put on Amazon for a short time as an e-book for say pence I buy it, even though I have the print book already, I can then read from my iPhone when I am not able to access the print version. I did this recently with one of Sharon Penman’s books which was available in e-book form for pence. I also have done the same with Helen Hollick’s superb sea stories about the pirate Jesamiah Acorne.
The ability to read the first couple of chapters or a kindle sample before buying is a good help in deciding whether to get it or not. I have found through long experience that reviews can be somewhat unreliable. There are those who dish out one star review for ridiculous reasons or worse with malicious intent. A book can have lots of enthusiastic five star reviews, yet turn out to be not to my taste, so I don’t always base my decisions on them; preferring to decide for myself by reading the samples. I often discover excellent novels, especially historical ones on Goodreads rather than Amazon, or on blogs by my favourite authors who review other author’s books or often invite other authors to discuss their latest books.
What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like? This is a difficult one in that it is something of the heart. For me historical fiction and non-fiction appeal because I have always loved the past. Old castles and archaeological digs et al attract me for their atmosphere. The books help me to a greater understanding of how humans lived; the further back the better. When I read James Michener’s “The Source” and Wilbur Smith’s “The River God” (ancient Egypt) for example I was in the stories with the characters, utterly absorbed. The films “The Gladiator” and “Spartacus”, the Hornblower series on film, all have a similar effect. (I love the Hornblower books too) I am there with them all. When I actually visited Middleham Castle for example, the thought that Richard the III had once lived there fascinated me as he is a man I have always thought unjustly treated by historians. The recent find of his bones was so unexpected and I hope they will finally let him be buried respectfully so he can rest in peace. There isn’t much left now at Middleham which is an hour or so up the road from where I live. I found myself dreaming away about how it must have been when it was a thriving and beautiful castle. Castles always do this to me. There is a certain silence, a mystical haunting sort of presence even. I see the blackened walls where the kitchens were and imagine how they cooked. There is even an example of a loo there still. It is what you might call functional and I left my thoughts there at that point. Even the little bay where my mother was born – Runswick Bay, has a history of smuggling and ships foundering, the village slipping into the sea one stormy night too. As a child I lived and breathed its history through being there a lot and listening to my mother’s tales.
I don’t like poorly researched historical fiction, nor do I like all these light-weight historical “chick lits” They aren’t really about history, they are just another way to write romances, steamy or otherwise, and there are far too many of them coming out in e-book form.
What types of historical fiction do you prefer? Sometimes I find authors who write a mixture of historical type fiction but include other multiple genres such as fantasy, paranormal, time travel. These are usually absorbing, fascinating, exciting and well worth reading. Alternate historical novels come into this type of novel too. I like time travel and/or paranormal where the book will be partly set in the here and now but then we are taken with the main character by various means back in time (Barbara Erskine- “The Lady of Hay” and “Child of the Phoenix” and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series) I really like a historical novel which has a factual base but is also about ordinary people of the time and how they lived (Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett) I also especially like historical novels which are extremely well researched factually but the author uses personal creativity to build a historical character’s imaginary thoughts and actions such as Queen Emma in Helen Hollick’s book “The Hollow Crown”. Elizabeth Chadwick’s books are wonderful examples too. My favourite of hers is “A Place Beyond Courage” which introduces William Marshal’s father John Fitzgilbert. Sharon Penman’s “Sunne of Splendour” (Richard III) and “Here be Dragons” (Llewelyn Prince of Gwynedd) are wonderful books. I fell in love with Llewelyn! They are so impeccably written and researched, but she brings out the humanity in her main characters and they come alive perfectly by her creativity. I am able to see them fleshed out, how they might have been in their thoughts words and actions; set apart from the historical facts. There are also many more female writers now coming to the fore who write about strong females in history. These are proving increasingly popular, certainly with me.
Re the length of a book, I am not so keen on short stories or novellas and if a book is very long it has to be a quality story such as “Sarum” by Edward Rutherford, “Hawaii” by James Michener, “Lord of the Rings” or Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth”. I have no problem with a very long book if the quality is there and the plot is maintained. My favourite length would be around 350 t0 500 pages. Trilogies sometimes fail, as the last one in particular can be a disappointment or repetition in the second of the trilogy becomes boring.
Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why? I have already mentioned most of the following – Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Helen Hollick, Bernard Cornwell, (I found his book “Azincourt” excellent. Rosemary Sutcliffe, Ken Follett, Conn Iggulden, Alison Morton, Diana Gabaldon, Barbara Erskine, James Michener are all top class authors. Then there are more I personally have found so very good – Taylor Caldwell, “Dear and Glorious Physician” is her best for me. Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Anya Seton, Mary Renault, Noah Gordon (The Physician) – about a young lad who becomes a barber surgeon and goes on to greater things. A fascinating book) Barbara Woods – “Soul Flame” a young woman who wants to become a doctor when it was unheard of. The book “Lark Rise to Candleford” is a lovely read. These are all authors I would heartily recommend to other readers. Why? What can I say except to tell others I have thoroughly enjoyed these books because of their power to enthral me, their ability to take me back into the past and the high quality of the writing though often very different in style. Some are written by authors from a long time ago, others are more modern.
I can’t leave out Arthurian legends. I have had many variations on a theme with books by Mary Stewart, Helen Hollick, Gillian Bradshaw, Marian Zimmer Bradley Rosemary Sutcliffe, Stephen Lawhead and more, all on my shelves. I love all the films about Arthur and Merlin too, both old and new. I can’t leave out Robin Hood, another well worn legend but with a new look. Angus Donald, anew author has written some brilliant books about him in a much more realistic manner than the traditional stories.
I have very many more books on my shelves, far too many to mention. I am not keen on Facebook in general so rarely visit it, though I know in more recent times many top authors have their own blogs there. I prefer to keep up with the authors I follow by going on their websites and connecting to Goodreads.
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 am not keen on Facebook in general so rarely visit it, though I know in more recent times many top authors have their own blogs there. I much prefer to keep up with the authors I follow by going on their websites and connecting to Goodreads. Twitter is not somewhere I can discuss or read anything much in depth about books. It is more of a place where people chat very briefly or advertise their books. Since joining I have been inundated by potential authors I haven’t heard of or associations keen on me knowing what they have to promote or sell wanting to “follow me” Goodreads is an interesting place to be and I have learned of many new authors here. There are clubs to join but the ones I have been interested in are huge in numbers so it can be difficult to chat much. I do like to read which books are currently popular in the clubs and why. I am not a member of any local book clubs outside of Goodreads. I genuinely like to follow the blogs of my favourite authors on Goodreads and try always to leave a thoughtful comment. After all, they have found time in their own busy lives to keep us informed of news re their books and personal day today lives. There are no clubs where I live and being chronically unwell also presents difficulties for me in getting out. I enjoy discussions about books with my eldest son and my close friends. We swop our books around with those we trust to take care of them and return them promptly.
It is always interesting for me to learn of other’s reactions to books we have mutually read. Characters, plot, quality of writing are all topics I love to share and discuss in person rather than on-line. One friend has written five books himself, three of which he has had published so it is lovely to listen to his thoughts not only whilst he is writing books, but also the books we both read and talk about between us. He in turn finds it valuable to get a reader’s point of view re his own writing. It is also exciting to both recommend books and receive recommendations too.
What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction? I am not sure if I am qualified to give advice to writers of historical fiction? All I would say to them is to keep them coming and keep them authentic. Never skip on getting the background research needed before writing; no matter how long and hard it is to do so. Glaring mistakes with actual facts obviously annoy many people. Read the reviews!
Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on? I would hate to live in a world without my favourite authors of historical fiction and their truly wonderful books so a huge thank you to you all including you Mary.
Thank you, Leila – your reading interests are so eclectic. I’m very glad you’ve shared them with us and pleased to see quite a number of favourites that we have in common. Your WWII experience with a German bomber is fascinating.