In the Reviewer Spotlight: Thom Swennes

Welcome to the Reviewer Spotlight, where dedicated book reviewers share their thoughts on reading and reviewing historical fiction! Today's guest is Thom Swennes!

Why do you read historical fiction?

     I have always loved history. What happened years or centuries ago has an influence on us and the world around us. The old adage that history repeats itself holds true and has been evident throughout the ages. Historical fiction generally focuses on a particular time, region, event, or person and brings them into an understandable and personal perspective. This differs from straight historical works, which fill page after page and chapter after chapter with dry facts and figures. An example of this is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer covers the National Socialist movement in Germany from its beginnings to the final days. The book is great for facts but misses the mark at bringing the personal tragedy of war and persecution to the reader. Mila 18 by Leon Uris brings the suffering in the Jewish Ghetto of Warsaw and the individual desperation and courage of the innocent victims in their attempt to turn the tide of extermination. John Jakes intertwines historical personages with his wonderfully complete imaginary figures. Ken Follett brings medieval England to life in his epic tale in Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. The same applies to the historical works of Edward Rutherfurd and James Michener. Both of these authors trace their stories literally from the beginning to the end. All of these novelists have vastly different styles but the result of their efforts is the same… . . . history is brought to life on the pages of their books. That is why I read historical fiction.

What are you reading now?
     I am presently reading Code to Zero by Ken Follett. This spoof takes place in 1958, which makes it a valid work of historical fiction (and therefore makes me feel very old!). I've just started it so can't really make any viable comment about it.
What makes a great read for you?
     A story that grabs my imagination and flows goes a long way in my opinion. Tales with strong and well formed characters, historically accurate and emotionally moving, generally score the title of great read in my opinion.
What is your biggest turnoff?
     It takes a lot to turn me off. I would say that my biggest turnoff would be when a book doesn't live up to its hype. A good example of this is the historical novel Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. This story, set in the 17th century, was published in 1944. Upon publication it generated a public controversy that would be inconceivable today. Fourteen U.S. States banned it as pornographic but it never-the-less sold 100,000 copies in its first week of circulation. The fact that the Catholic Church condemned it as indecent added to its popularity. I started reading it with high expectations only to be confronted with the generation differences. My parents' generation was much more prudish and naive than mine and certainly more than today. Although I found it highly entertaining, I couldn't see what the hype (at that time) was about. The sexual passages were vague and nothing in comparison to what flows from the pens of contemporary authors. Diane Gabaldon's Outlander series and Paullina Simons's The Bronze Horseman trio would have been publicly burned and banned in all the states if they would have been published at that time.
Where do you stand on the fact vs. fiction debate within the genre?
     I feel that the fiction should embrace the history in which it is placed. By this I mean that a good historical novel should be a story in a story. The reader should be able to identify with the characters and still be able to breathe the air of the past. In some novels the facts are slightly altered to fit into a story and this I don't mind. A blatant distortion of history is another matter.
Are there any subjects that are overdone?
     Possibly, but I have yet to find an example.
Are there any subjects you'd like to see more of?
     I particularly love the Napoleonic era. I have read many novels set in this period and several were very good but there'’s always room for more!
Do you read any of these historical fiction sub-genres: mystery, inspirational, fantasy, romance? Why or why not?
     The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon would probably fall into this category and I enjoyed all seven books and am looking forward for the release of number eight. This is a series that deals with time travel (fantasy), has many mysteries, and is highly inspirational, if for no other reason than being an impressive, ambitious and never forgettable love story.
Are there any current trends in the genre you either really like or really don’'t like?
     I'’m not over-keen on Vampires.
What's the last historical fiction book you read and loved?
     The last historical novel I read was Lake in the Clouds by Sara Donati.
What's the last historical fiction book you read and hated?
     There are very few that I could say that about. As in people, I always try to see the best in them.
What's your favorite time period to read about?
     The period beginning about 1760 and ending around 1865 is my favorite.
Who are your favorite historical fiction authors?
     I have many favorite historical fiction authors: Ken Follett, Diana Gabaldon, James Michener, Leon Uris, Gore Vidal, Sara Donati, Edward Rutherfurd, John Jakes, Paullina Simons and Alexander Kent are just a few. (God, I hope I didn’t leave out anyone!)
How often do you read?
     I can truthfully say that I read every day. I often feel someone should invent or produce a longer day to give me even more time to read.
Do you read print books, eBooks, or both? Which is your preference?
     I read both, but prefer the feel and smell of the paper page.
Do you have a favorite place to read?
     I have a high-backed Chesterfield chair in my library. From that place of comfort I can escape into the world of the written word, bringing time to a standstill or turning back the clock.
Where do you post your reviews?
     I generally post my reviews in Goodreads. Friends, family and associates aren't particularly receptive to my reading experiences so I am bonded to strangers that share my passion.
Do you write a review for every book you read?
     For years I didn't but have this past year. As I stated before, the right recipients are essential.
Do you read other reviews of a book you've read before you write yours?
     No, I don't even read the information on the back of the covers as I am afraid that it may distract from my expected pleasure.
Do you read your friends' reviews of books you'’ve also reviewed? If so, do you find that your thoughts tend to be similar or dissimilar?
     Yes, I read the reviews of books I have read (and written reviews about). The second question is much more difficult to answer as people and their tastes vary dramatically.
Have you ever stopped following someone because of a review they'd written?
     No, I am often passionate but never radical.
Where do you think readers can find the most trustworthy reviews?
     I don't have that much experience with reviews outside of Goodreads. As with all aspects of life, some people's opinion carries more weight than others.
How much weight do you give to reviews when choosing whether to read a book?
     None, I like to think for myself.
What do you like best about being a book reviewer?
     I tend to think more about what and why I'm reading something. I sometimes start a review before the final chapters are read. This inspiration generally comes when I'm not reading but mulling over what I've read. 

Thanks for stopping by, Thom!
You can find Thom on Goodreads.
Stay tuned for more
Reviewer Spotlights!


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