Do you stick to a certain genre, or is your taste varied?
I’ve been a fiction addict all my life, and a few years ago joined a local reading group. I hadn’t realized how narrow my taste had become, but from the start I was enthralled by the different genres chosen by members. From fiction to memoirs and biographies, I’ve read books I would never have chosen for myself.
‘The Book Thief,’ by Markus Zuzak, seemed strange, but I stuck with it and discovered a slice of WW2 life presented like a fairy tale – dark, funny, intriguing, and impossible to put down.
A later one with a chick-lit cover, had me convinced it wouldn’t be for me, but Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, tackled a serious subject, combining it with humour and an achingly tender love story. The characters stayed with me long after the final conclusion.
Amongst the biographies, ‘That Woman – the life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor,’ was a biography so gripping, it read almost like fiction, and proved a revelation. I finished it, thinking that she and Edward VIII deserved each other – and thank heavens he chose to abdicate.
The memoir that left me open-mouthed, however, was a personal choice. ‘We Don’t Talk About That,’ by Giselle Roeder, was one I bought after hearing about it through social media. In my opinion, this is a book every woman should read, especially in the light of recent revelations via #MeToo. It shows the other side of war – the horrific reality experienced by the women and children. In this case, in eastern Germany, at the latter end of WW2, when the Russians invaded and took control. Heart-breaking at times, but also tremendously life-affirming, Giselle Roeder’s account takes the reader through the early post-war years and up to the erection of the Berlin Wall. Thankfully the author escaped to tell her story…
Good writing can transport the reader to different times and places – and they can teach the reader a lot. As an only child, a story came alive for me when it expressed something I’d felt, or answered a question. I found classic American novels like ‘What Katy Did,’ and, ‘Little Women,’ made me feel less alone, and taught me that questions about life and living were common to all.
As a young teenager, I progressed through girls’ boarding school adventures to serial stories in women’s magazines. But on TV, an old black and white film of ‘Wuthering Heights,’ with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, led me to read the book – and others by the Brontësisters. Their novels were much darker than anything I’d read previously, but they opened my eyes to the drama of our local landscape in West Yorkshire – one I’d previously taken for granted.
In the days before TV and mass photography, painting the setting with words was necessary. Nowadays, ‘description’ tends to take more of a back seat in the average novel – in some, it’s missing altogether, which I think is a shame. As a writer, I feel description helps to define the character, putting him or her firmly in the landscape – or townscape, as the case may be. And as a reader, I like to be able to ‘see’ the setting.
An old friend of mine was keen on Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries – but somehow, they left me cold. But as the years progressed, and I became a writer of novels set in the late 19thcentury – no surprise there, given my earlier influences! – I found I could no longer read books similar to the ones I was writing.
Why? Because I couldn’t read without criticising. ‘I wouldn’t have done it like that,’ was a thought that often interrupted my reading. So over the years, I found myself turning to a genre I couldn’t possibly write – detective novels. For years they have been my ‘chewing gum for the mind’ – a way of switching off at the end of the day. I’ve become addicted to series featuring the same characters – but the ones I like best feature descriptions of time and place.
‘The Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries’ – about an archaeologist called in to help solve murder mysteries, is just one series that’s kept me gripped through several books. Author Elly Griffiths keeps up the interest in her main character by letting Dr Galloway breathe and grow. And thanks to the descriptions, I can see that lonely cottage by the sea where she lives, and understand her lifestyle…
But aside from the books at bedtime, what do I read in my lunchtime breaks? Usually, it’s the current novel chosen by my reading group. It’s rarely one I would have chosen for myself, but it widens my view and keeps me in touch with other genres.
Having said that, the choice for March was just up my street – ‘The Daughter of Time,’ by Josephine Tey – in which the author’s hero, a Scotland Yard detective, solves the mystery of Richard III. A must-read for anyone interested in this much-maligned monarch!