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!

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!

Favourite reading oriented sites – Readers Choice

M.K. Tod’s 2013 historical fiction survey asked readers to name their “top 3 reading oriented websites, blogs and social media sites”. In other words, where do people go for information and discussion to enhance their reading. The answers are in:

2013 Favourite Online Reading SitesGoodreads is way out in front with 907 mentions followed by Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Historical Novel Society.

Interestingly, when readers mention Facebook they often qualify their response by mentioning a favourite group, author, fan page or the Facebook page associated with a blog.

Compared with 2012, Twitter has leapt ahead and I am delighted to see the Historical Novel Society featured so strongly.

Over 675 sites were mentioned. That’s an amazing number of sources for readers to peruse!

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL THE SITES FEATURED

When I have more time, I will attempt to aggregate some of the numbers so I can report on different categories such as small book review blogs, sites dedicated to historical fiction, author blogs, library sites and so on.