Reader Interviews – here’s Renee from Utah

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

Tell us a little about yourself.    I’m a 51 year old female and recent transplant to Utah. My degree in education somehow got parlayed into food service management, with a brief detour into the tech industry. I prefer saying I’m currently “on indefinite sabbatical” rather than saying “unemployed.”  When I’m not reading, I’m digging through my ancestry hoping to find something scandalous or trying to perfect my bread baking skills.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.    It’s funny you mention length of books as a preference. When our book club votes on selections, I notice page count is a determining factor. I’ve told them I’m going to stop putting that on the book lists so they have to vote based on the merit of the synopsis. They were not amused. I figure if an author can fill 800+ pages with solid writing, I’m willing to read 800+ pages. That said, I have recently adopted what I call the 49 Page Rule. If the author hasn’t hooked me by page 49, I abandon the book.

My reading is evenly split between non-fiction and fiction. To have four or five books going at once is about normal for me. One is almost always essays or short stories, something I can pick up and put down without forgetting what I read. I’m a night owl, so most of my reading is in the evenings, usually at the kitchen table with a pot of tea nearby.

It might sound hyperbolic to say e-readers changed my life, but it is true. I was born with low vision. When I was young, I could read most regular print by manipulating the lighting conditions or using magnifiers. In high school and college, I was reading several books a week. As I got older, my vision gradually worsened. By age 45, it would take me weeks to read a book. It just wasn’t fun anymore.

Large print books are difficult to source. Bookstores don’t stock them, and the large print section of a library is a literary ghetto. The selection seems geared to retirees: formula romance, Chicken Soup for the Whatever, conservative politics, and mainstream religion. Large print books are also expensive, bulky, and often abridged from the original. The Library of Congress loans large print and talking books to the blind for free, but the selection is sub-par and often not current … or at least that was the situation a decade ago. Then there’s just the stigma of carrying around something that attracts unwanted attention. I can’t tell you how often someone has seen me with a large print book and said something like “Maybe you should have your eyes examined.”  Uh … right.

In 2012, my husband gave me an iPad. Downloading the Kindle app was the first thing I did. I’m back to reading 40-50 books a year. With an e-reader, every book is automatically large print and accessible. The iPad is likely the best tool ever invented for low vision readers. I just wish it had been around when I was in school.

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    Sample chapters. I am a shameless and unapologetic downloader of sample chapters. And I get utterly annoyed at samples that don’t include the table of contents or that pad the sample with ten pages of quotes dripping with extravagant praise for the book. That’s not a sample; that’s ad copy.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    History often is reduced to a dry list of facts and dates. We don’t feel a connection to it or understand its relevance to our lives today. We are where and who we are – both individually and as a culture – because of the past. How do we know where we’re going if you don’t understand where we’ve been? At its best, historical fiction brings context to all that dry data. It arouses our empathy for our collective ancestors and their lives by putting us, at least emotionally, in their time and place.

I can’t really think of anything specific to historical fiction that I don’t like. No one likes poor plot or bland characters or unrealistic dialogue, but that can be found in any genre. I do think regional cliché might be more prevalent in historical fiction than in other genres. I grew up in the South, so I’m particularly aware of slave owner-belle-redneck trinity of stereotypes.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    A strong story trumps everything for me. Whether that strong story is in 7th century Algeria or 17th century Osaka, adventure or intrigue, I’ll get on board with it if the story is strong and the characters believable. I have had my fill of western European royalty, though. I don’t see myself reaching for another book about yet another English or French royal for a long, long time.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?    I suspect most readers don’t define genres as strictly as writers do, so some of these may be a wee bit outside the definition commonly used here.

What: Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings — I just finished this, so right now I’m recommending that to everyone.

Where/when: 1810-1860 Charleston, South Carolina. It is loosely based on the lives of two sisters who stepped waaay outside their comfort zones to become abolitionists.

Why read it: I think the real skill behind this book is apparent when you get to the end, read the author’s notes, and realize which parts were documented and which she created in service to the plot. It’s an example of the alchemy possible when blending history and fiction.

What: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.

Where/when:   Aleppo, Syria circa 1905.

Why read it: This book broke my heart. Like most people I knew next to nothing about the Armenian genocide. Also, I think Bohjalian is one of the few male authors who write convincing female characters.

What: Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series

Where/When: myriad settings during the Napoleonic wars, but mostly at sea.

Why read it: O’Brian can’t be beat as for action scenes. Also, it has a wonderful example of complex and unlikely platonic relationship.

These next two may not be as well-known, but I thoroughly enjoyed them.

What: Soldier of Raetia by Heather Domin.

Where/when:   Rome, 10 BCE . Thanks to some mediocre teachers in school, I thought Roman history was boring. This book changed my mind.

Why read it:   It has well-research history, it has believable characters, it has good pacing. Also, this is a good example of the difference between creating a complex historical story that includes a same-sex relationship rather than writing gay sex scenes with historical window-dressing.

What: Julie Rose’s Oleanna.

Where/when:   Norway circa 1905.

Why read it:   Oleanna is about relationships – with family, with self, with the land. That last one is particularly well-played in this book. The descriptions are so vivid that the land itself becomes a character. (In full disclosure, I’ve known Julie for years, but that doesn’t factor into my opinion of the book.)

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?    Maybe half of my “to be read” list comes from talking to friends about what we’re reading. The radio show Fresh Air and our local library’s surprisingly thorough newsletter account for perhaps 20%. The rest come from putting random keywords in to Amazon or Goodreads or someone on Goodreads or my Livejournal friends mentioning something they just read and liked. My “want to read” list is akin to the myth of the Hydra: every time I take one book off the list, two more go on it!

I’m not sure how to phrase this without sounding like a Luddite – which I really am not – but I’m not a big fan of most social media. Being data-mined to make Mark Zuckerberg richer doesn’t have a value-add to my life, so I just don’t bother with it.

I don’t even follow my friends’ blogs all the time, so it never crosses my mind to follow authors’ blogs. As for reviews, I think the format has lost a lot of credibility over the last few years — too much drama, not enough information.

When I moved here, I joined a book club that has been active for over 20 years. The meeting format is very structured with planned discussion points, etc. We’ve been known to disagree strenuously (but amicably) about plot points or the credibility of character conflicts. We spend so much time communicating at people on the internet instead of with them face-to-face that it’s refreshing – and a little challenging sometimes – to dust off social skills and do some conversational give-and-take. When you’re sitting across from people – especially if you’re of the minority opinion – you get to practice active listening, arguing the point rather than the personality, response rather than reaction. It’s good stuff! I recommend getting in the same room with a bunch of people and really chewing on a book. Even if you didn’t like the book, you get something out of talking about it.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    Don’t be so worried about “getting it right” that the story suffocates under the weight of extraneous information. I think some writers get overwhelmed by the vast amount of research they’ve done and feel the need to cram it all into the story. Distill the information to its essence and use it to serve the story you want to tell. I think most of us can tell when someone just regurgitates 300 pages of facts and then tries to shoehorn characters into it. On the flip side, readers need to stop nitpicking over tiny incongruities. It’s called historical fiction for a reason.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?    For so long “historical fiction” seemed confined to a handful of scenarios: Nazi Germany, the US civil war, Tudor England. All interesting places and times, but there is so much more to history than those three scenarios. What else, really, is there to say about Elizabeth I or Henry VIII?

Every place and time is fertile ground for storytelling. There is not a place on the planet that doesn’t have its own rich history nor a time when absolutely nothing happened. I think writers – especially new writers — are starting to realize the benefits of exploring stories in other times and places. For readers, that’s pretty exciting.

Many thanks for telling us about your reading, Renee. Your advice to writers is very refreshing and I truly enjoyed what you had to say about your book club. With two readers recommending Oleanna, I’ll definitely have to put it on my TBR list!

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!