Readers on Reading – Jill from Florida

Jill is a friend of mine. She’s a delightful woman who always has a smile on her face and is always ready to lend a hand. And she runs an excellent monthly book club discussion. 

Please tell us a little about yourself. I’m a 65 year old grandmother, very engaged in community service. I read 3-4 books at a time, switching between them like programs on a tv. I read a little of everything, fiction and non-fiction. I also moderate a book club in my neighborhood, with 8-40 attendees. We read a broad range of genres.

In your opinion, what is the power of fiction? Fiction inspires and informs us.  Fiction writers do extensive research for us, and then entertain us with a story woven around the events of the time, whether the events are real or fantasy.  Fiction gives us a way to escape, to learn and to dream.

What kind of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of? I could never limit my reading to one genre.  I need to move between historical fiction, classics, thrillers, murder mysteries, sci fi, fantasy and various non-fiction.  I don’t really ‘steer clear’ of anything, although I sometimes find it difficult to suspend my sense of reality long enough to truly enjoy science fiction or fantasy novels for very long.  Occasionally, I object to reading too many stories of women dealing  with regimes like the Taliban or Saudi Arabia or too many WW2-based stories in a row.  I love to read stories with clever plots, complex characters, and interesting themes.

What aspects of an author’s writing make you feel like you’re ‘immersed in the novel’s world’ and/or ‘transported in time and place’? Details!  The devil is, I’m sure, in the details for an author. But for a reader, details pull our minds into the story.  What did the characters find on their dinner plates? What were they wearing? What was the room like that they were in?  What smells came wafting in the window? What were the background noises, the music?  How did the light hit the scene around the characters?  How were they reacting to all those stimulants?

Which books read in the past year or so stand out for you and why? Hillbilly Elegy [J.D.Vance]—it says so much about our current culture and societal problems.  The Accidental President [A.J. Baime]—I’m from Missouri and enjoyed reading about Truman, our Missouri president.  The Girls of Atomic City [Denise Kiernan]—I had no idea that the production of the hydrogen bomb was so big an undertaking and that an entire city was built up to support the research and production—and that it was a huge secret!  I also enjoy the writings of a Haines, Alaska writer, Heather Lende. She’s an obituary writer for the Haines and Anchorage newspapers and has published 4 or 5 books now. She has made me eager to spend a month or three in Alaska.

How do you decide what books to buy? What influences your book purchases? I am a big fan of several book critics and reviewers.  Elaine Newton and Jean Lewis give me a long list of books to look forward to each season! I also read the NYT book review section every weekend and check in with Book Bub and Goodreads online.

Is there anything about where you live or your particular background that influences your fiction choices? I have lived, most of my adult life, in big cities, and have lived among many people from other cultures. I enjoy books that let me explore those cultures more and  live vicariously with families all over the world, or who have come to the US from all over the world.  I’m intrigued with the experience of immigrants and refugees.

Is there anything else about reading fiction, the kind of books available today, or the way reading is changing that you’d like to comment on? I embrace technology and read most of my books on my Kindle. I love being able to carry my entire library in my handbag. I love being able to travel with stacks of books to read at the tips of my fingers.  I also love being able to find out about new books online.  I rarely hold a  physical book in my hands and find it awkward now.  Travel guidebooks, cookbooks and picture books are really all I have on my bookshelves now. I remember taking a book 20 feet up an apple tree, so that I could rest on a limb, against the trunk of the tree, munching apples and reading up in the leaves. When I was a child, my fondest dream was to live in a library.  I have been known to read all night long, only putting my book down as the sun began to light the sky.   Oddly, I didn’t read To Kill A Mockingbird until just a few years ago, and it might be one of my all time favorite stories now.

Many thanks for your insights, Jill. 3-4 books on the go at one time is too much for my brain!! Looking forward to our April book club discussion of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

10 Tips for Being an Actively Engaged Reader

Image: RIT Libraries
Image: RIT Libraries

With over 50 years as a book critic and 40 years teaching humanities at university, Elaine Newton knows a thing or two about being an engaged and critical reader. Critical in the positive sense of that word.

In a recent talk called ‘Between the Covers’, Elaine offered advice on how she goes about preparing a thorough book review. She refers to her approach as “unpacking books for her audience”. By the way, she reads every book three times in preparation for one of her book review lectures.

  1. Choose a worthy book. Elaine suggests that if you aren’t engaged after 50 pages or so, you should feel free to walk away from a book. Included with this tip were suggestions like: beware of the herd instinct of best seller lists; don’t forget the classics; trust professionals; keep an open mind for new topics, styles and settings.
  2. Take notes. Elaine exhorted the group to write in the margins, underline meaningful passages along with a note on why you found it interesting, keep track of key characters and events, make notes on style – in essence, make the book your own.
  3. Consider narrative voice. In particular, ask who is telling this story and, even more importantly, why.
  4. Look at structure. Is a story told chronologically, back and forth in time, through linked stories that eventually come together? Consider how the past influences the present. Consider chapter structure, plot twists, crucial scenes, and subtext.
  5. Examine the opening scene very carefully. Ask yourself why the author chose to start the story at this particular point and what is the meaning of that point in the context of the story. If there’s an epigram or piece of poetry at the beginning, what does is tell you about the deeper meaning of the novel.
  6. Examine the ending. Does it provide resolution? Is it ambiguous or a shocker ending? What does the author wish to convey and why?
  7. Review the book’s style including syntax, symbols and motifs. Is it poetic or not? Is it dialogue heavy or not? What sort of vocabulary has the author chosen and why? What about humour?
  8. Examine the characters. When did they appear and how did they make their entrance? Did you empathize with them or not? Are you aloof from them or embedded in their lives? Why do things go wrong for that character? What do they contribute to the story?
  9. Examine key relationships in the novel. Are they functional or dysfunctional? What happens to the relationships? Look for the doppelgänger, and for the ‘otherness’ lurking within the novel. Look at the relationship of the novel’s world to the world we live in.
  10. Find out about the author. The author’s life may inform the book.

Stir the mix together to discover what a given book means to you and what truths it illuminates for you.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.