Reader Interview – from the US west coast

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

It’s been awhile since I posted any reader interviews and . . . here’s a reader from the west coast of North America sharing her thoughts about historical fiction. She’s a voracious reader as you will see.

Tell us a little about yourself.  I am 62, live in the West Coast of US but grew up back east.  Both sides of my family came from little towns and I spent every summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holiday there.

My whole life direction changed when I got married after college.  I had planned to be a teacher but I ended up working for my husband. I love reading, needlework, volunteer work, gardening and genealogy.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.

I have always been a voracious reader as were my mom and dad.  I read almost a book a day but have tried to slow that down because I actually run out of books.  When a weekend or holiday comes up, I “stockpile” a bunch of books so I won’t run out.  I would estimate I read around 300/310 books per year.  I only read one book at a time, and since we now have to watch our money, I get all of my books from 2 neighboring library systems.  Due to money issues I do not have an e-reader or mobile device to be able to read my books but I have given thought to investigating them.

For a long time, my two best friends were also avid readers and we would quietly drop books off at each other’s houses like abandoned babies waiting for a new home.  Sadly one has moved away and the other has passed away so now I have no one with whom to share books.  I adore long books and dislike short stories and for that matter poetry and science fiction.  I also enjoy biographies, and self-help books.  Lately due to some family medical situations I have been reading books on nutrition, health, and psychological disorders.  My very favorite fiction though has always been historical fiction.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Author, where geographically the novel takes place, time period.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I love learning about other places, in other times.  I love getting lost in a book and being able to forget my troubles or my pain.

My family has always done genealogy and when I started tracing lines, I had a blast.  I researched the female lines and discovered numerous Revolutionary War soldiers and one Mayflower ancestor.  I think researching genealogy, wondering about what ordinary people did or had to do to live is the biggest reason for my enjoyment of historical fiction.  I find those questions so fascinating.

For example, I read Paris by Edward Rutherfurd a few months ago.  In the middle of my exclusively Protestant English and few Scottish family lines, I have one French line.  Turns out they too were Protestant because they were French Huguenots.  This was the first novel since Tracey Chevalier’s Virgin Blue that I had read that told of French history and why and how the Huguenots were treated.  It was a fascinating learning experience.

I don’t like historical fiction that is incorrect or just unbelievable.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    I enjoy fiction about the various time periods in the United States and Great Britain the most. I am enjoying novels about India and Australia and have enjoyed books about Japan. I just finished The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley and it was just wonderful. I don’t seem to like books about the Middle East or South America or Africa so far.

The last few years I seemed to find everything about the Tudors fascinating (Hilary Mantel, Nancy Bilyeau), years ago medieval times (Sharon Kay Penman) then I went through a WWII period. Once I find one book about a time or an area, then I search for others.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    All of these authors write well-written, intriguing, original stories. I love books most when I can’t predict what will happen and would not even think of skimming. The best books have something in them for me to learn.

Favorite historical authors (I am a boomer so I am fascinated by anything before I was born) these are not in any order:

  • Nancy Bilyeau – The Chalice, The Crown
  • Lucinda Riley – The Midnight Rose, The Orchid House
  • Sharon Kay Penman – Sunne in Splendour, etc.
  • James Bassett – In Harm’s Way
  • James Clavell – Shogun, Tai Pan, King Rat
  • Tatiana de Rosnay – Sarah’s Key
  • C.S. Harris – Sebastian St. Cyr novels
  • William C Harris Jr. – Delirium of the Brave
  • William Martin – Back Bay, Cape Cod, The Lincoln Letter,
  • Edward Rutherford – New York, London, etc.
  • Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall
  • Colleen McCullough -The Thorn Birds
  • John Galsworthy – The Forsyte Saga
  • James Michener – Hawaii, Centennial
  • Leon Uris – QB VII
  • Herman Wouk – The Winds of War, War and Remembrance
  • Deborah Swift – The Lady’s Slipper
  • Fiona Mountain – Lady of the Butterfies
  • David Liss – The Whiskey Rebels
  • Anne Perry
  • Kate Morton
  • Charles Todd

Current general fiction writers I love

  • JA Jance -Joana Brady, JP Beaumont series
  • Diane Chamberlain, “The Midwife’s Confession”
  • Kellie Coates Gilbert, “Mother of Pearl”
  • Kevin A. Milne, “The One Good Thing”

Romantic fiction writers I really enjoy

  • Mary Balough
  • Jane Feather

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 used to share books and had great discussions when my mother and cousin were alive. But they passed away. Then my two dear friends are no longer around, so I have no one who shares my specific reading interests. I have tried a few book clubs but found that the general level of interest was for an Oprah type of book. Very few of them appeal to me.

To find new books, I have looked on Goodreads and have had success picking from compiled lists of certain historical era books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    I love historical books because I want to learn about the era and also the location. Young women in particular had little actual freedom in the past or worked so hard. For an author, keep it real. Don’t have a character doing something that would not have been practical for them to do in that time period. Geographical and historical descriptions make stories come alive. I often have a world atlas close by so I can track where a character travels.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    There are many more average or poor working people in the world than society or wealthy traveled ones. Books with normal characters are more intriguing.

That’s an amazing list of favourite authors! Enough suggestions to keep most of us reading happily for a year or two 🙂 Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about historical fiction.

WWI Books – Readers Offer Their Choices

Not long ago, I asked readers what books they are reading about WWI. Through this blog, Facebook and Twitter I received quite a few responses and thought I would share them with you. Lots of reading options here. A few non-fiction or memoirs and many fiction. Some love or family stories wrapped around war, many gritty stories of the war itself and the lasting effects it had on those who served.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 6.59.57 PMBefore the Fall by Juliet West – “Beautifully wrought, utterly compelling and with a twist that will leave you breathless, Before The Fall, inspired by a true story, hurls you into a London torn apart by the First World War and paints a vivid and haunting portrait of one woman’s struggle.”

Wake by Anna Hope – “three women must deal with the aftershocks of WWI and its impact on the men in their lives—a son, a brother and a lover.”

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman – “Historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Barbara Tuchman has brought to life again the people and events that led up to World War I. With attention to fascinating detail, and an intense knowledge of her subject and its characters, Ms. Tuchman reveals, for the first time, just how the war started, why, and why it could have been stopped but wasn’t.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.00.31 PMSomme Mud by E.P.F Lynch – “Somme Mud tells of the devastating experiences of Edward Lynch, a young Australian private (18 when he enlisted) during the First World War when he served with the 45th battalion of the Australian Infantry Forces on the Western Front at the Somme, which saw the most bloody and costly fighting of the war.”

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth – “Revealing the horror and heroism the creator of Middle-earth experienced as a young man, Tolkien and the Great War also introduces the close friends who spurred the modern world’s greatest mythology into life. It shows how the deaths of two comrades compelled Tolkien to pursue the dream they had shared”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.01.23 PMSix Weeks by John Lewis-Stempel – “The average life expectancy of a subaltern in the trenches was a mere six weeks. In this remarkable book, John Lewis-Stempel focuses on the forgotten men who truly won Britain’s victory in the First World War – the subalterns, lieutenants and captains of the Army, the leaders in the trenches, the first ‘over the top’, the last to retreat.”

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally – “In 1915, two spirited Australian sisters join the war effort as nurses, escaping the confines of their father’s farm and carrying a guilty secret with them. Used to tending the sick as they are, nothing could have prepared them for what they confront, first near Gallipoli, then on the Western Front.”

In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl – “Iris followed her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, to France in 1914 intending to bring him home. On her way to find Tom, Iris comes across the charismatic Miss Ivens, who is setting up a field hospital in the old abbey of Royaumont, north of Paris. Putting her fears aside, Iris decides to stay at Royaumont, and it is there that she truly comes of age, finding her capability and her strength, discovering her passion for medicine, making friends with the vivacious Violet and falling in love. But war is a brutal thing, and when the ultimate tragedy happens, there is a terrible price that Iris has to pay, a price that will echo down the generations.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.02.06 PMTestament of Youth by Vera Brittain – “Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war’s end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation.”

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson – “Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.”

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy – “From a village in Nova Scotia to the trenches of France, P. S. Duffy’s astonishing debut showcases a rare talent emerging in midlife. When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into battle.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.10.41 PMThe Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes – “In 1916, French artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his wife Sophie to fight at the Front. When her town falls into German hands, his portrait of Sophie stirs the heart of the local Kommandant and causes her to risk everything – her family, reputation and life – in the hope of seeing her true love one last time.”

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith – “The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over the next three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. In this emotionally charged, brilliantly realized novel, April Smith breathes life into a unique moment in American history, imagining the experience of five of these women.”

Au-Revoir la Haut by Pierre Lemaitre – this is my feeble translation of a Goodreads description in French – “After the Great War, Albert and Edouard quickly understand that their country doesn’t want them. Misfortune to the victors! France glorifies the dead and forgets the survivors. These two survivors of the inferno, Albert, who has lost everything, and Edouard, who is crushed by his family history, embark of a swindle of national proportions with absolute cynicism.”

The Last Summer by Kirsty Macleod – “Drawing heavily on memoirs and biographies from the Edwardian/Georgian period, McLeod offers a mosaic-portrait of English (mostly London-centered) life through the legendary summer of 1914, month by month: the intent, more or less, is to offer some balanced perspective on ‘the myth of the golden age and of the last golden summer’–a myth which has been periodically punctured in the decades since. Thus, McLeod reminds us that ‘the golden summer of the few in 1914 was guaranteed by the servitude of the many’.”

Bess Crawford series by Charles Todd – Bess Crawford is a WWI battlefield nurse and amateur sleuth.

Anne Perry’s WWI novels – Perry wrote five novels one for each year of the Great War. These novels follow the story of the Reavley family as they endure the war and gradually uncover “the sinister figure they call the Peacemaker, who is trying to undermine the public support for the struggle–and, as the Reavley family has good reason to believe, is in fact at the heart of a fantastic plot to reshape the entire world”.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 7.02.37 PMJacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs seriesThe period of time from the mid-1900’s until the 1930’s was a time of unprecedented change in Britain. The devastation of The Great War, mass emigration to America and Canada, rapid social changes—not least votes for women—to be followed by the Roaring Twenties, the General Strike and the Depression. It was a time of burgeoning artistic expression, with the movements that we now know as Art Nouveau and Art Deco demonstrating a dramatic departure from the Victorian age … The Great War demanded that there was hardly a field of endeavor left untouched by a woman’s hand, so that men could be released for the battlefield … It is in this world that Maisie Dobbs came of age.” In 1929 she sets up her own private investigation agency. There are now 10 mysteries in the series. 

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves – “In 1929 the author went to live abroad permanently, vowing ‘never to make England my home again’. This book is an account of his life up until that ‘bitter leave-taking’: from his childhood and desperately unhappy school days at Charterhouse, to his time serving as a young officer in the First World War that was to haunt him throughout his life.”

Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker by Louis Barthas – “Along with millions of other Frenchmen, Louis Barthas, a thirty-five-year-old barrelmaker from a small wine-growing town, was conscripted to fight the Germans in the opening days of World War I. Corporal Barthas spent the next four years in near-ceaseless combat, wherever the French army fought its fiercest battles: Artois, Flanders, Champagne, Verdun, the Somme, the Argonne. Barthas’ riveting wartime narrative, first published in France in 1978, presents the vivid, immediate experiences of a frontline soldier.”

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery – this is #8 in the Anne of Green Gables series – “Anne’s children were almost grown up, except for pretty, high-spirited Rilla. No one could resist her bright hazel eyes and dazzling smile. Rilla, almost fifteen, can’t think any further ahead than going to her very first dance at the Four Winds lighthouse and getting her first kiss from handsome Kenneth Ford. But undreamed-of challenges await the irrepressible Rilla when the world of Ingleside becomes endangered by a far-off war. Her brothers go off to fight, and Rilla brings home an orphaned newborn in a soup tureen. She is swept into a drama that tests her courage and leaves her changed forever.”

What an amazing collection – and we’ve only scratched the surface!

Reader Interview Series – Kris H.

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

A Writer of History is hosting a series of interviews with readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. I hope these interviews will augment the survey data I’ve collected. Please welcome Kris, one of my Facebook friends as she tells us about her reading.

Tell us a little about yourself.     I was born in 1944, the illegitimate daughter of a divorced German soldier and a young Norwegian woman. Whether my mother left to follow her lover, or was forced by circumstances beyond her control is not clear, but 14 months later she gave birth to yet another daughter (by the same man), whom she left with her older, married half-sister. I had been left with her parents, then in their late 50’s. Having sold their farm (Holtan South) due to ill health, we lived in a small whaling village near Larvik.

I spent my first 5+ years with my grandparents who adored and spoiled me, especially my grandfather who read to me and told me all the old stories. By the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me to read, using the local newspaper and the older children in the village often would drag me around the shop windows and marvel at my ability to read the text on the advertisement. (Normally children did not start school until age seven).

When I was 5 or so, my mother returned and soon married a Norwegian whaler and my life in a home with no books began. Fortunately my grandparents lived nearby and I was able to visit almost daily to read (with my grandmother’s encouragement) despite my mother’s frustration at her failure to keep me home.

Throughout the school years I visited the local library, which was open every Wednesday, taking home as many books as I could carry. The woman who ran the little circulating library eventually learned to keep some goodies aside for me and did not restrict me from any book that struck my fancy.

I have never stopped reading since and thank my grandparents for this gift.

In 1964, following a unhappy love affair (no doubt a failure because it didn’t live up to my expectations based on my reading), I decided that Norway was too small and too small minded to contain my rebellious self. I left Norway for the US and, having lived on both coasts as well as in Ontario CA and the Midwest, I am currently living near Seattle, WA working full time as bookkeeper. Aside from spending time with my two adult sons when possible, my main interests are reading, travel and Fabric Arts.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.     Based on my Kindle history for the past year, I can say I read between 3 and 5 books a week. I read in bed, on the couch while pretending to watch TV and while at lunch. I read Hard Covers in bed (prefer cheap paperbacks in the bubble bath); read my Kindle at lunch (and sometimes at work) and while travelling.

Since I am a fairly fast reader, I prefer longer tomes and usually read one book at a time.

Historical Fiction and what I like to call Crime Noir (Nordic Noir and Icelandic Noir) and the Police Procedurals set in the UK are my preferred escape from the sometimes emotionally gutting Historical Fiction I adore. Occasionally I will mix in some Contemporary Fiction (most recently The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin).

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I use any avenue open to me: haunting libraries, Big Box Bookstores (not so much anymore), Independent Book Sellers, and, of course I visit numerous Literary Facebook Pages as often as I can, for example: Historical Novel Society, The Review and Before The Norman Invasion. In addition, I follow my favorite, old and new, authors’ FB Pages and Twitter accounts.

Before the Internet, I relied on the cover attracting my attention, Goldleaf and Reds rarely failed, then I read the inside cover. Once I find an author whose words speak to me and whose characters engage me emotionally (i. e. break my heart) I will track down every one of his/her published works.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like that a well written historical fiction takes me to the time and place described and makes me fall in love with the characters, real or fictional. I am not so fond of the hybrid historical fiction that incorporates Sci-Fi and/or Super Natural Elements (though I have been known to read them).

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    My favorites are the ones that shed light on a time of importance in history, and flesh out the people of the era, especially when all the old myths and romantic notions are stripped away to show a very human side of a romanticised/vilified/mythicized figure.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?

Should not embarrass you but I have to list M. K. Tod’s Unravelled – because it is the first novel set in this time that I have read and I loved it. Loved it so much it led me to Charles Todd’s The Inspector Rutledge Series. [MKTod – I did not pay Kris to say this!!! Thanks for your very kind words, Kris. I’m honoured to be on your list.]

Dorothy DunnettThe Lymond Chronicles and King Hereafter are my favorites – because of her painstaking research, exquisite character development, intricate plotlines and luminous language.

Sharon Kay PenmanSunne in Splendor * The Welsh Trilogy -Because of her (again) meticulous research, believable character development of real historical figures and their relationships, and (again) flawless language and plot development.

Mary StewartThe Arthurian Saga – because she doesn’t fall into the mythology trap regarding Merlin and the Arthurian Legend.

Cindy Brandner The Exit Unicorn Series –   for her lyrical prose, excellent characters and riveting historical setting.

Sara Donati (Rosina Lippi)’s Wilderness Series – because of the fresh look on the almost unreadable James Fenimore Cooper originals.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter – because it was my first historical fiction, read in the original Norwegian as a teenager. This book opened my eyes to other worlds and other times.

Elizabeth ChadwickShadow on the Crown – for shining the spotlight on an influential woman of her time who has been long neglected in fiction.

Gillian BradshawThe Horses of Heaven – for its unusual setting.

Morgan LlywellynThe Horse Goddess & Grania– Wonderful look at Irish History/Legend

Then there is phenomenon that is Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander Series (with Auxiliary Novellas and Short Stories). I resisted picking this up for a long time because I was leery of the Time Travel element. When I finally (accidentally) picked up Dragonfly in Amber at the library I was captivated enough to buy the entire Series. For about a year and half I was a rabid fan. Unfortunately for Dr. Gabaldon the bloom is off the rose for me. I feel more and more like a victim of an evil marketing genius and do not like the feeling of being sucked into cult-like following. That is not to say she is not a wonderfully imaginative writer. The first three books are unforgettable … but after that I prefer the Lord John Gray Stories.

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 pretty much on my own here; I do “lurk” on a lot of Facebook Literary Group sites, also follow many authors, and make occasional comments. I am somewhat less enamored with Goodreads. I must say I would really like to find a group or book club where I might find likeminded book lovers who actually read the books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    OMG … I couldn’t presume, but first of all do your research, don’t filter morals of another time through a 21st Century lens, and do not insert sex scenes a la 50 Shades, rather evoke emotional suspense.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?

Read, read and read.
WOW, Kris. What a great interview to kickoff this series. Your childhood could form the basis for a novel on its own! And you’ve given so many wonderful recommendations for other readers. 500 books in one year – that’s an incredible amount of reading. Many, many thanks!