Man Reading – John Singer Sargent
Douglas and I met through A Writer of History. If I recall, he had read one of my guest posts on another blog and, as luck would have it, ‘clicked on through’ to me. Our interactions via the comments feature ultimately lead to interactions via email – I value his encouragement and support. When he volunteered for a reader interview, I knew his responses would be thoughtful and interesting. So take it away, Douglas.
Tell us a little about yourself. I am a three score years and ten male still in a good marriage longer than a life sentence. Grateful to be born safe when bombs still dropping in London. Came to a 44 year old mother as a surprise, or given older brothers, not the daughter she wanted.
I moved around the UK to live and work ending up in lovely Royal Leamington Spa Warwickshire. A figures engineer by training so I have read and made up quite a lot of futuristic fiction.
Sadly as a child I cannot recall being read to or many books at home. When I started school other children seemed favoured by teachers as they could read, so there appeared some advantage in doing so as well. Teen years progressed from historic fiction in Biggles, Sherlock Holmes and Dennis Wheatley on to straight thrillers by Alastair Maclean and Ian Fleming, with off putting reading of Dickens and Shakespeare for school certificates.
Interests – thinking and dreaming, people watching, trains, boats and planes, social, economic and war history, computing, taking snaps, health and mental illness and walking. Reading, one of life’s great pleasures, uses up rest of my waking hours. Life highlights have been crewing in 10,000 miles of ocean sailing, piloting a plane, being a delighted passenger with my wife on Concorde, driving a couple of big steam engines and doing the Tour de Mont Blanc walk.
Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences. 100+ books a year – five or six books on the go at any one time picking up any one depending on mood or where I have left them in the house – unless I have been hooked into a page turner. Also now, where I have left a pair of spectacles. Most reading takes place late, running past midnight into early morning.
Prefer books under 100,000 words each. Up to 2010 for previous 40 years I read mostly non fiction, four out of every five books, including biographies being works of fiction about how people wanted to be known. Reading has changed over last four years to one book out of five being non fiction but this year two books in a drift back to non fiction. I have a Kindle and can read on PC and iPad, but I do not like electronic reading. If I read a book electronically, it will have been a page turner and/or a book I was prepared to pay up to £5 / $8 for as an e book but not £10/ $17 as paperback. My ideal is a large print hard cover book.
My youngest son gave me a copy of Lee Child’s Affair in 2011 and said I would get hooked. I have read all Lee Child’s books finishing with in my view the best , his first book Killing Floor. He said he was angry when he wrote Killing Floor so he needs to get angry again. I am still trying to work out why he hooks me in having tried many of his peers with little success.
Fiction reading is mostly adventure and thrillers covering the background history in my lifetime and my parents lifetime, so anything going back pre 1900 is less interesting.
How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases? I try to get a good idea about a book before I borrow, divert from my wife’s reading pile, or buy. I often buy books originally loaned from my public library as I did for a lovely anthology – A Little Aloud , also Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. I apply my five “E” tests to books:
Engrossing and interesting – being hooked in.
Enjoyment – warm feelings about a particular book.
Entertainment – the chuckle and laughter factor.
Emotional – one’s feelings and personal intimate memories.
Educational – learning about a subject for the first time or in more detail.
Ease of reading – I read fiction for pleasure, so books with dull stories or poor structure are discarded. I will work at a densely written book if content is good, for example: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson. I have a preference for a good pace but do acknowledge history can be a dry and slow subject. There are far too many good fiction and non fiction books out there to waste reading time.
Price is a factor as I am mean on the amount I am prepared to pay for fiction because I wish to read a lot. 100 new books a year at £10 / $17 or more each is too much. Generally I read and pass on fiction. Amazon used books for a few pence plus postage provides a source for most books I buy. On non fiction I am prepared to pay up to £20 /$34 for new or used books as non fiction books will usually stay on my shelves and/or clutter up our home.
I visit charity shops and lookout for a great cover, an author’s name which rings a bell or good attractive synopsis hooking me in on a back cover or frontispiece. Some new authors I have found this way include Katherine Webb – Unseen and Half a Forgotten Song. The latter contains one of my all time jaw dropping scenes. Alastair Campbell – All in the Mind and Daniel Mason – The Piano Tuner.
I would like to support independent bookshops more, but pricing is an issue and I buy few new books. I purchase new non fiction books from them even if I can buy more cheaply on Amazon.
What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like? I like books with a strong technical background of politics or history. I think this is because I am a non fiction reader at heart. I am not too enamoured with historical fiction pre 1900 which seems too remote. If a good story I would prefer a modern setting. I read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth because of the background about Cathedral building but found his book far too long.
I think I should try to read more classic historic fiction as when I look at 100 best books of all time lists I struggle to find books I have read. However, my inclination is weak and not improved by a web site last week which gave low star rankings to and witty comments about most of the usual 100 best books.
What types of historical fiction do you prefer? Robert Harris, (25th on Mary’s 2013 survey ) is a favourite … books about Cicero and the politics of Rome rang true of recent UK politics … he even made Pompeii a great read, even though I knew the volcano would erupt. The background of aqueduct systems proved very interesting. I find his recent historical fiction settings are best. In Fatherland and Archangel he has written a different outcome to historical events.
I have a number of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks books on my shelves – some good – some great – some awful. Jeffrey Archer is a good story teller. I liked his book on Mallory on Everest and his own Prison Diaries.
Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why? My four and five star recommendations during the last year in rank order below show how historical fiction is a strong preference for me and meets my “E” factors – sadly all have war as the historical background. However, I still prefer to read about war in non fiction.
Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng – WW2
Never Forget – Angela Petch WW2
Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng WW2
Unravelled – M K Tod WW1 and 2
Empire of the Sun – J G Ballard WW2
The self published books at 2 and 4 stand up well against the others. These front runners are out of a wider fiction field of general fiction by Morpurgo, McGregor, Holt, Hall, Cain, Campbell, Jacobson, Roteman, Baldassi, Kureishi, Shan, Silva, Dyer, Lawrenson and Moggach and historic fiction by Webb, Deighton, Wilson, Bragg, Cornwell, Follett, Goddard, McEwan and many others.
Personal lifetime historical fiction book highlights ranked by period
Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason 1880s
War of the Worlds – H G Wells when published futuristic, now to me historical fiction c1910
Arthur and George – Julian Barnes c1910
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje WW2
The Reader – Prof Bernhard Schlink WW2
A Robert Harris book WW2 – a hard choice which one,
A Thousand Splendid Sons – Khaled Hosseini late 1970s and 1980s
The Sett – Ranulph Fiennes 1980s
All the above include memorable scenes and continue to give me warm feelings and most I will read again.
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 a dinosaur as far as Twitter and Facebook are concerned. Goodreads seem to me to be too female dominated. I limit my reading to reviews in the national press and on Amazon and I ask friends what they are reading and for their best book reads. The answers are not always successful as reading tastes are very personal and some just follow fashion and the crowd. Some of my best reads have been accidental. The national press in the UK are promoting some new books very cheaply; also supermarkets virtually give away new popular books. I have purchased with mixed results. The Book Lovers’ Companion reviews over 250 books and many look to be worth reading. The extracts from what the critics said are often amusing. I find face to face book club type discussions a little false often being about reader’s own egos.
What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?
As a reader I do look for success in balancing the educational historical factual background with the writer’s story. I prefer historical facts to be clearly stated and as far as possible verified and correct, or indicated as supposition or fantasy variation written for the story. Although as a non fiction reader I am happy to have chunks of history and fact in solid text I am sure creative writing classes will preach ‘show rather than tell’ with more dialogue. In my recent reads list above the authors have balanced the history facts and their stories very well in all the books particularly those based on war with Japan where cultural differences came much more into play and also historic Japanese and Chinese relationships. In Len Deighton’s Winter I thought the excellent WW1 and WW2 history from the German perspective overshadowed the fiction story lines.
Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on? Read a wide range of authors and genres in library books to provide context to historical fiction. Do not be disappointed if you cannot get on with a particular author. I do not like Hilary Mantel’s books but clearly the literary establishment does. Try some self published books. Go around the on line self publisher book shops.
Try and review on Amazon all books you start and finish because the thought process does often draw out and clarify why you liked or disliked a book and informs then what you might read in the future. I always give a review as soon as I start a book and another on completion if I get that far.
Many thanks, Douglas. I particularly like your five Es test for books as well as your suggestion for readers to review the books they read. Reviews are a real gift to writers. And you’ve given us some great recommendations to consider – I can see some overlap in our reading preferences!