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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

The Good Reader

Circe Invidiosa by JW Waterhouse
It's almost two years since I joined Goodreads and I immediately realised what a useful source of recommendations it is. Members vary from those who dip in and out to those who review frequently. Everyone has something valuable to contribute. I've met many interesting people who, like me, love to read but one who has stood out is Jill Weeks. She's been a member since 2011 and clocked up an impressive total of over 1,200 reviews. I can't claim to have read them all but those I have read are always perceptive, lively and above all, they give you a good idea of whether you will enjoy the book she's talking about.

Jill writes under the alias Damaskcat and, as she says that she hates having her photo taken, uses one of her favourite paintings as her profile picture. (I know the feeling but I'm sure she really has no need to fear the camera.)

So, enough of an introduction. Make yourself comfortable and enjoy.

Jill, welcome to the blog. Would you tell us a bit about yourself. Have you always been such an avid reader? 

Thank you for inviting me, Harriet. Yes, I have. I’m in my 60s now and I have always read a lot ever since I first learned to read. My parents always knew I could be found sitting in a corner with my nose in a book.  I live on my own and am currently recovering from the death of my long term partner nearly two years ago.  Reading has been my lifeline since he died but I have always read a lot and reading has helped me get through many crises over the years. 

Do you have hobbies aside from reading? 

I have had various hobbies throughout my life including embroidery – mainly cross stitch – knitting, writing, surfing the internet and researching my family history.  Currently reading and writing reviews are my main hobby though I expect I shall return to the others at some point. 

What is the first book you remember reading? 

I can’t remember the title but it was a book printed on shiny paper with a bright yellow cover and the text was in blue and looked a bit like handwriting.  It was about a rabbit called Sammy Lapin who lived on Gold Gorse Common near Black Bramble Wood.  He was a white rabbit and he didn’t like being different from his brown brothers and sisters and was always being teased about it. He ran away from home and ended up polishing boots for the army and as a result stained his fur khaki.  Once he was the right colour he returned home and felt he fitted in though by that time of course it didn’t matter anyway as he had more self confidence. I haven’t tried to track it down on the internet in case it’s not as good as I remember it to be. 

Are you a general reader of do you stick to particular genres and if so, why? 

I do read almost all genres apart from science fiction and fantasy though I have read books which fall into both of those genres at various times in my life.  My favourite genre and the one I read most of is crime.  I prefer crime novels which aren’t too violent which might sound like a contradiction in terms but there are some very good writers around who concentrate on the detection of the crime rather than the inherent violence. I also enjoy books about books. 

You’re a prolific reviewer of books on Goodreads. Do you find that reviewing enhances your reading experience? 

Yes I think it does.  I must admit I’m a selfish reviewer and do it solely for my own enjoyment.  Even if I never had any feedback I would still review but I am pleased when someone says they enjoyed my review and read a book and enjoyed it because of reading my review. 

On a scale of 1 to 10, what are the importance of the following in persuading you to buy a book: the cover, the blurb, online or newspaper reviews, personal recommendation?   

The blurb has to be 10 for me as I do make my reading choices mainly on the blurb.  Close behind at 8 would be the cover.  I recently read a book solely because the cover attracted me and I found the book really good – this was ‘Best Wishes, Sister B’ by Fran Smith. Online or newspaper reviews are probably about 7 in that they alert me to a book’s existence but then I tend to read it or not based on the blurb.  Personal recommendations are perhaps 7.  There are several people whose reviews I follow and I pick up quite a lot of new authors that way. 
Do you have any advice for indie authors seeking to market their books? 

I think I can only really say that if you’re writing crime novels don’t dwell on the violence – less is more in my opinion. The one telling detail is often more horrific than pages of gore.  For example a child’s teddy bear with one spot of blood on it tells the reader more about a crime scene than pages of detailed description. Don’t try and make the book gritty and realistic – I can have gritty and realistic by reading the news so I want something different from the fiction I read. If a book is described as gritty then I will automatically discard it as not my sort of thing. 

What’s most likely to put you off a book you’ve started? 

Swearing – not the occasional F word but a swear word on every page is guaranteed to put me off.  Characters who are always trying to ‘wind each other up’ – I have a particular dislike of this in real life so dislike it even more in fiction.  In a police procedural a main character with too many personal problems which detract from the investigation of the crime.  Again in a police procedural police characters who don’t get on with each other most of the time.  If they’re all at loggerheads and trying to score points off each other how are they ever going to investigate a crime successfully? 

Who are your favourite authors? 

This varies depending on what I’ve read recently!  I think my all time favourites have to be Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories followed closely by Elizabeth Pewsey’s six Mountjoy novels (She now writes as Elizabeth Aston and Elizabeth Edmondson) and Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.  I also return to Jane Austen time and time again – most notably Pride and Prejudice. 

Which literary characters would you invite to your perfect dinner party? What would you serve them?

 Probably the characters from the books listed above.  I think I would serve a traditional English meal of roast beef with all the trimmings followed by apple pie or apple crumble though there would need to be a vegetarian alternative for some of the characters from Phil Rickman’s books. They are all very much English characters and would be at home with that meal. 

Ernest Hemingway said that all good books had one thing in common: they were truer than if they had really happened. Would you agree? 

I hadn’t come across that comment before but I think I would agree with it. 

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” – C S Lewis. Would you agree? 

If you substitute coffee for the tea then yes I would agree with that. 

Do you have a favourite place where you like to read? 

My leather settee on which I can stretch out full length closely followed by my bed.

What, for you, is the perfect accompaniment to a good book? 

Has to be chocolates and a mug of coffee or a glass of wine. 

Creative writing courses seem to be here to stay and they tend to emphasize rules of good writing, for example writers must avoid using multiple viewpoints; too many adverbs are a bad thing and reported speech is a complete no-no. As a reader encountering any of these things, do you find that they put you off a book? 

No I don’t think they put me off a book and I can think of several authors who use multiple viewpoints very successfully and whose books I enjoy – for example Susan Howatch.  I think an author has to be careful with multiple viewpoints but it can work well. Too many adverbs or adjectives can be off putting as the reader tends to get bogged down in the writing rather than what the writing is saying so I think this is good advice in general.  However the one telling adverb or adjective can bring a whole passage of text to life.  Reported speech can be very effective – think of Jane Austen’s Miss Bates in Emma or the distillation of Mrs Elton’s comments about strawberries at Donwell Abbey in the same book. 

E-books or tree books – which do you prefer? 

E-books definitely – convenient, adjustable font size, no storage problems and no dusting! But I do still buy cookery books in paper format and I wouldn’t part with my few treasured Folio Society editions of some of my favourite authors. 

Do you buy books online or do you prefer to browse in a real bookshop? 

Mainly online but I do like a good browse round a real bookshop. 

What do you think has been the most successful film or TV adaptation of a book? 

The BBC’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle and not for the wet shirt scene either!  It captures the sheer exuberance of the original and is true to the text as well. 

Do you have an all-time favourite book? 

No I don’t think I do though perhaps Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night is one I re-read most often closely followed by Pride and Prejudice.
Link to Damaskcat's page on Goodreads -


Sunday, 3 January 2016

Meet Shannon Selin, author of Napoleon in America

It's a great pleasure to welcome Shannon Selin to the blog. Shannon is an author with considerable experience of writing non-fiction who has recently branched out into fiction with the publication of her alternative history novel, Napoleon in America.

Welcome Shannon,
Would you tell us a bit about yourself and your family? Where are you from? Do you have a day job or do you write full-time?

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies best known for its slogan, “New York is big, but this is Biggar.” I was an avid reader and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. After graduating from university, I worked at jobs that involved considerable non-fiction writing in fields ranging from foreign affairs to health care, and wrote creatively in my spare time. I worked on several novels, none finished to the degree that I ever considered publishing them. Once I started on Napoleon in America, I turned to writing full-time. I live in Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, with my husband and our youngest child. Our two older children are away at university.

You’ve chosen a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, as the main character for your novel. What in particular attracted you to writing about him?

Five years ago, my husband and I dined at a New Orleans restaurant called Napoleon House. The building originally belonged to a Frenchman named Nicolas Girod, who was the mayor of New Orleans during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Girod hated the British and was furious when they imprisoned Napoleon on the island of St. Helena. According to legend, Girod fixed his house up as a residence for Napoleon and plotted with some pirates to rescue the former French emperor and bring him to the United States. Shortly before they were to set sail, they learned that Napoleon had died.

I read this story on the menu and said to my husband, “That would make a great book, if Napoleon had come to North America.” He said, “Why don’t you write it?” I thought, “Why not?” My father was a history teacher, so I was already quite familiar with Napoleon. Whether one takes a positive or a negative view of him, Napoleon was a complex man who dominated the history of his time. He remains one of the best-known figures ever. Even people who don’t know the details of his story recognize his name, his portraits and the shape of his hat. I thought it would be fun to take this larger-than-life character and put him in a new environment.

Tell us a bit about the story. What conflicts shape it and where did the inspiration for it come from?

Napoleon in America begins where the Napoleon House legend leaves off – with Napoleon on his way to New Orleans in 1821. Beyond the improbability of Napoleon being able to escape from St. Helena, I wanted the book to be as plausible as possible. I thus used only actual historical characters and set the novel in the geopolitical context of the time. The story is shaped by conflicts within Napoleon, as he struggles to adjust to life in the United States, frets about his legacy, and worries about his son, who is living with the Austrian royal family. It is also shaped by the reaction of others to Napoleon’s new freedom. Opponents of the Bourbon regime expect him to reconquer France. French Canadians beg him to seize Canada from Britain. American adventurers urge him to steal Texas from Mexico. His brother Joseph pleads with him to settle peacefully in New Jersey. The British, French and American governments follow Napoleon’s activities with growing alarm, while remnants of the Grande Armée flock to him with growing anticipation.

How do you do your research?

For Napoleon in America, I started by reading a lot of books about Napoleon, particularly about his time on St. Helena. What physical shape was he in? What frame of mind was he in? If someone plucked him up and carried him away, what would he be likely to say and do?

I then read up on all the other characters who appear in the novel – people like the Duke of Wellington, Louis XVIII and his family, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Quincy Adams, the Bonaparte family, pirate Jean Laffite, and Napoleonic officers who fled to the United States after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Since the book moves between St. Helena, various European settings and North America, I also did research on each of these places in the early 1820s, to help me imagine what it might have been like to be there.

Wherever possible, I turned to original sources: relevant letters, diaries, memoirs, travellers’ accounts and newspapers, as well as historical maps, paintings and drawings. Luckily, copies of many of these are available online.

 Even though Napoleon is a historical figure, you’ve placed him in a fictional story. Alternative history has been criticised by academic historians who claim it is valueless. How would you answer that charge?

Alternative history as a genre of fiction has, like all fiction, the value of entertaining the reader. As for the value to academics, considering other ways in which history might have unfolded can help scholars look at events as they appeared to decision-makers at the time, without the benefit of hindsight. It can also help historians clarify their assumptions. Do they regard history as determined in advance to go a certain way? If not, on what factors did whatever they’re studying depend? As historian Mark Grimsley writes, “when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of ‘[what] might have been’ history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable – an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition – they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently.”

Longwood House on St Helena where Napoleon spent his final years as a prisoner of the British
 It’s been said that you can’t teach creative writing, you can only recognise what is good and say ‘keep doing that’. Do you agree?

I think that, as with other creative pursuits like music and art, some people are born with an aptitude for writing. Those who are not can be taught principles and techniques, and even those with natural talent may benefit from some instruction in the craft. Ultimately, the best way to become a better writer is to read a lot of good writing. That comes in many forms.

Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?

I tend to be a plotter. I like to know where I’m going with a book: what the end is going to be, and what needs to happen for the story to get there. I start by coming up with a detailed outline. I then make adjustments to the plot as I go along, if something doesn’t feel right as I’m writing, or if my research – which is ongoing – sparks ideas that I hadn’t considered at the outset.

What are you working on now?

I am writing the sequel to Napoleon in America, which continues Napoleon’s North American adventures. I also blog about Napoleonic and 19th century history on my website. Sample posts include “10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte,” “Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington,” and “How Pauline Bonaparte lived for pleasure.” I’d be delighted if your readers checked it out. 

Thanks for the lovely interview, Harriet. It’s a great pleasure to appear on your blog.