Reader Interview Series – Douglas from Warwickshire

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent
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 WebbUnseen and Half a Forgotten Song. The latter contains one of my all time jaw dropping scenes. Alastair CampbellAll 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 MistsTan Twan Eng – WW2
Never ForgetAngela Petch WW2
Gift of RainTan Twan Eng WW2
UnravelledM K Tod WW1 and 2
Empire of the SunJ 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 TunerDaniel Mason 1880s
War of the WorldsH G Wells when published futuristic, now to me historical fiction c1910
Arthur and GeorgeJulian Barnes c1910
The English PatientMichael Ondaatje WW2
The ReaderProf Bernhard Schlink WW2
A Robert Harris book WW2 – a hard choice which one,
A Thousand Splendid SonsKhaled Hosseini late 1970s and 1980s
The SettRanulph 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!

Historical Fiction – WWI and WWII Favourites

MyBooks1So many books, so little time is a frequently heard mantra amongst readers. The same notion applies to writers crafting new stories. Reading is essential to writing. According to master storyteller Stephen King, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

My own collection of books bulges with historical fiction and historical non-fiction as well as a number of books on the craft of writing. Those concerning WWI and WWII have relegated other favourites to lesser shelves and basement hideaways.

mybooks3Some personal favourites:

BIRDSONG by Sebastian Faulks is the “story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experience of the war itself.” In the introduction, Faulks declares that the theme he explored was “how far can you go?” and “what are the limits of humanity?

I have never been a student of history. Teachers presented the subject as an exercise in memorization and I never found the rhythm or rationale to glue together facts into a compelling canvas of people with competing interests. In the early days of writing a novel set in WWI, I struggled to find descriptions of battles that were not dense with jargon and the minutiae of warfare. VIMY RIDGE 1917 by Alexander Turner is a slim volume full of maps and timelines, pictures and diagrams all of which helped me understand the unfolding of that great battle and others like it.

While visiting the Vimy memorial in 2010, I purchased LETTERS OF AGAR ADAMSON. Norm Christie, the editor, writes “As a historical document the letters of Agar Adamson stands on their own. But what gives his letters even more depth is the complex and touching relationship with his wife, Mabel Cawthra.” Reading letters is not a narrative experience. Rather, it is one full of gaps, seemingly inconsequential details, occasional outbursts and names of people known only to the letter writer. But if you persist, Agar’s character shines through and you begin to appreciate the real experience of WWI.

Pierre Berton was a well-known and well-loved Canadian author and journalist who dedicated most of his writing to non-fiction tales exploring Canadian history and heritage. VIMY is his account of that famous battle, the horrific conditions of trench warfare and the intensity of preparing to take a ridge that had defeated two earlier assaults. “Drawing on unpublished personal accounts and interviews, Berton brings home what it was like for the young men … who clawed their way up the sodden, shell-torn slopes in a struggle they innocently believed would make war obsolete.” My grandfather survived Vimy Ridge which prompted my desire to incorporate this battle into two of my novels.

Anne Perry wrote a series of WWI novels, one for each year of the war. Although each novel is a self-contained story, collectively they tell the tale of the Reavley siblings, Joseph, Judith and Matthew, and an ominous character called the Peacemaker whose actions threaten the very survival of Britain. I first read AT SOME DISPUTED BARRICADE, and when I realized it was part of a series, read the rest in order: NO GRAVES AS YET, SHOULDER THE SKY, ANGELS IN THE GLOOM, WE SHALL NOT SLEEP. These absorbing stories illuminate the realities of WWI, painting pictures of those who struggled to survive, those who offered support and those who led others to small and great victories.

One day, browsing the shelves of my nearby bookstore, I found DEAFENING by Frances Itani with its story of Grania, a young deaf woman, who falls in love with Jim, a hearing man. “As the First World War explodes across Europe, Jim leaves to become a stretcher bearer on the Western Front, a place filled with unforgiving noise, violence and death. Through this long war of attrition, Jim and Grania attempt to sustain their love in a world as brutal as it is beautiful.

mybooks4WWII is rife with spy stories. Several have kept me up late at night fearing at any point the capture and torture of one or other fearless agent. Sebastian Faulks comes through with another winner, CHARLOTTE GRAY. “In 1942, Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman, heads for Occupied France on a dual mission – officially to run an apparently simple errand for a British special operations group and unofficially, to search for her lover, an English airman missing in action.

And who did not weep when either reading or watching THE ENGLISH PATIENT? This novel by Michael Ondaatje is a complex but moving tale of love and redemption set in North Africa and Italy during WWII.

With espionage as a theme in one of my novels, THE SECRET LIFE OF BLETCHLEY PARK by Sinclair McKay called to me immediately. I had to know what happened at Britain’s code-breaking centre and the personalities who worked there. McKay delivers, bringing “stories of the ordinary men and women who made it happen” to life while explaining the intricacies of that highly confidential work and world.

My copy of VESSEL OF SADNESS originally belonged to my stepfather. It is a story of those who fought and died in 1944 at Anzio, Italy. After the invasion of Sicily, the Allies slowly made their way into Italy, taking piece by painful piece of that country from the Germans. An assault originally imagined to be swift, played out over months and months of gruelling effort. Vessel of Sadness spares no detail of the true story to capture the Alban Hills. Based on his own experiences in the British army, William Woodruff’s tale is brutal and achingly human.

Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads almost like fiction. The New York Times review of his book IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS said “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds [William, his wife Mattie, daughter Martha and son William Jr], characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.” If you seek to understand pre-WWII Germany, this is one of the best and most readable sources.

Below is a list of some other novels and non-fiction works I have on my real and electronic shelves. All have played a part to inform my writing.

WWI

  • Marching as to War – Pierre Berton
  • The Serpent’s Tooth – Michelle Paver
  • The First Casualty – Ben Elton
  • Three Day Road – Joseph Boyden
  • A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Halprin
  • Life Class – Pat Barker
  • Maisie Dobbs – Jacqueline Winspear
  • Fall of Giants – Ken Follett
  • Elsie and Mairi Go to War – Diane Atkinson

WWII

  • Resistance – Anita Shreve
  • Hornet Flight – Ken Follett
  • The Good German – Joseph Kanon
  • The Spy Who Spent the War in Bed – William B. Breuer
  • Unlikely Soldiers – Jonathan Vance
  • Inside Camp X – Lynn Hodgson
  • Restless – William Boyd
  • Fallen Skies – Philippa Gregory
  • Operation Mincemeat – Ben Macintyre

I’m sure I’ll find and read more, unless, of course, I decide to write stories of another era 🙂

Favourite Historical Fiction

Downith, a blogging friend and fellow Canadian, tagged me to write a post on The Alternative Booker Award sharing my five personal favourite books and asking five more bloggers to share theirs.

The notion of ‘favourite’ is difficult for me and I am prone to forget past novels as more recent reads push them aside like a surging crowd. And then, of course, there’s the tricky aspect of genre. A favourite non-fiction is difficult to compare with a favourite historical or mystery – I read them for different reasons and they prompt different pleasures. Stop dithering, Mary, and get on with your list.

Not surprisingly, my list concentrates on historical works.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje still lingers in my memory and I often dip into it for inspiration as I struggle to create a scene. Who can forget the author’s lyrical writing and the anguish of lost love amidst the certainty of death?

Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman transported me into the medieval times of the 13th Century, telling the story of King John, Llewelyn the Great of Wales and Joanna, “daughter to one, wife to the other”. It is no wonder that Penman was listed the number one favourite historical fiction author in my 2012 survey of readers.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was an exhilarating read. To me, Mantel probed the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind in a way that was compellingly insightful. She deserves all the accolades received for this work.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson is historical non-fiction at its best. Truth is preserved but the telling is like a marvellous story that facilitates both enjoyment – if such a word can be applied to a time when Hitler’s grip tightens into a stranglehold – and learning.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a celebrated story of WWI. My copy is heavily underlined not only with historical facts but also with examples of Faulks’ wonderful writing style. This novel is often cited as an important work for its descriptions of the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches.

Selecting five books seems an impossible task in the realm of historical fiction and non-fiction, but I believe these will still be remembered years and years from now.

Tagging others for their picks – as a proud breaker of rules, I’ve decided not to restrict myself to five 🙂

Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial

Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade

Sophie Schiller author of Transfer Day who writes a blog under her name

Dianna Rostad who posts on Facebook and tweets and pins

Theresa Hupp who blogs at Story & History

Judith Schara who actively comments on my blog and writes historical fiction

Jack Durish who blogs under his own name

Kirstie Olley who blogs at Storybook Perfect

Debbie Robson who blogs under her own name

Char Simser who used to blog at A Librarian’s Life and now tweets and is very active on Facebook

Anyone who wishes to participate and does not maintain their own blog, is welcome to guest post on mine.