Recently, Mom gave me her parents’ photo album from their 1936 trip to France for the Vimy memorial dedication. Their pictures are a poignant reminder of a war that affected so many, and I, in my own small way, commemorated in Unravelled through a similar trip taken by Edward Jamieson and his wife Ann.
When my husband and I travelled to northern France, we attempted to visit some of the places where my grandfather had served during WWI. I knew he and my grandmother had done the same thing in 1936 but seeing their pictures made me realize we had photographed some of the very same places which brought a smile to my face.
Ypres Cloth Hall – only rubble was left of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) after WWI ended. Reconstruction began in 1928 and by 1934 the western wing and bell tower had been completed. Judging by the background of the 1936 photo, it looks as though my grandparents were standing in front of some remaining rubble. My grandfather was stationed was in the trenches near Ypres for many months of the war (he’s in this picture, my grandmother is the stylish-looking woman on the left).
Vimy Memorial – if you have ever seen this amazing memorial you will have struggled to keep your tears in check.
It’s a Canadian memorial, dedicated to all who served in WWI and built at Vimy to commemorate a battle won decisively by the Canadians.
Over 5,000 people attended the dedication ceremony – my grandparents were there.
Trench preserved at Vimy – I can’t be sure that these photos are taken at the same location, however they look very similar. Unlike these pristeen looking specimens, the trenches were a living hell. Imagine being one of the men visiting in 1936, remembering what it was like to eat, sleep, stand guard, and fight from the trenches.
Vimy Salute – During the dedication ceremony, planes flew past to pay tribute to those attending and those who died in battle. I wrote of this moment in Unravelled.
“To begin the dedication, a lone bugler played Last Post, its haunting sound echoing across the ridge. Tears ran freely: tears for fallen comrades, tears for lost youth, tears for what was and what might have been. When the last note faded, a formation of Amiot 143s, French twin-engine bombers, roared across the horizon. For Edward, time slid backwards …”
Cambrai was another stop on their tour. Grandpa served there as well. He was in the Signal Corps, involved in transmitting messages during the heat of battle by whatever means were necessary. 180,000 soldiers from Britain, Canada and New Zealand were involved in Cambrai – part of the Hundred Days War and the last big effort by the Germans. The time was early October 1918.
My grandparents took two pictures – ours are very similar.
After such an emotional time my grandparents went to Paris and then to England visiting Oxford where my grandfather was born and Magdalen College where his father worked before emigrating to Canada. Mom recalls that they were gone all summer leaving her at a girls camp and my uncle with relatives. Grandma and Grandpa returned to Toronto to learn of the death of my great-grandfather.
When I began writing, my objective was to investigate the lives and times of my grandparents. The research was inspirational; the result is Unravelled.
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 WinterI 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!
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!