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Bon Voyage: A Reading List for London

bon voyage

This fall, my sister and I will be going on a three week trip to London, Bath and Greece. Our plan is to celebrate my sister finally becoming a licensed architect by sightseeing, going to high tea and, near the end of the trip, spending a couple of days sitting on a beach in the Mediterranean. We are ridiculously excited.

that's not english by erin mooreRight about the time we were settling on dates for our trip, I was offered a review copy of That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore. Of course I accepted it, and flew through it a fit of excitement just after my sister and I booked our plane tickets.

In the book, Moore looks at some of the big and small differences in British and American English, and what those differences can show us about British and American culture. The words and topics she chooses range from relationships to drinking to reserve versus enthusiasm. It’s both delightful in the topics it chooses and, really, a great primer on some of the language issues that we might across while abroad. If you’re at all interested how language affects culture, this is a book you’ll want to pick up.

Because we’re both readers, we’ve been collecting and sharing and getting excited about other British books – both nonfiction and fiction – that we can read ahead of our trip. Here are some that we’ve grabbed so far:

Princes at War by Deborah Cadbury (nonfiction) – This is a new one out last month from PublicAffairs, a look at the crisis in the British monarchy following Prince Edward’s abdication at the start of World War II. This topic has been well-covered, but I’m intrigued by the fact that the book focuses on all four of George V’s sons.

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey (nonfiction) – I love Catherine Bailey’s books about aristocratic British families. In this one she covers the “Fitzwilliam coal-mining dynasty and their breathtaking Wentworth estate, the largest private home in England.” It promises feuds, scandals and civil unrest.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (fiction) – I’ve been wanting to read this book, a fictional account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell during Henry VII’s reign, ever since I finished watching The Tudors, but I’m trying to hold off… I think this is going to be the book I take on the plane with me.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia McNeal (fiction) – This is the first book in a quartet of mysteries featuring a young intelligence officer working as a typist at No. 10 Downing Street at the opening of World War II. My sister has read the first two in this series and said they’re great.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (fiction) – Can you believe I’ve never read this book? Heading to London seems like a good time to remedy that situation.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby (fiction) – The panelists on one of my favorite podcasts, Pop Culture Happy Hour, recently did an episode on this book. The story of a female comedian on a popular television show in 1960s London also sounds charming.

Of course we are always looking for more options. What are some of your favorite books about London (or Bath, or Greece). We would love your suggestions!

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  • Bex April 7, 2015, 6:54 am

    Amazing! Sounds like you’ll have a fantastic time. There’s a Jane Austen museum in Bath. I’ve not been because the time we were going to go we had no change for the car park but I hear it’s amazing. Wolf Hall will be such a good plane book,the hours will fly by! The only other London book I’d recommend off the top of my head is White Teeth by Zadie Smith 🙂

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 10:57 am

      I almost picked up Wolf Hall last month after finishing The Tudors, then decided I wanted to wait because of this exact reason… it seems like a perfect plane read.

  • Sarah's Book Shelves April 7, 2015, 7:27 am

    Sounds like a great trip! This is total light, scandalous reading, but the Lytton Family Trilogy (starting with No Angel) by Penny Vincenzi is fun. It starts with a British publishing family in WWI Britain..and follows subsequent generations. Have a blast!
    PS – I’m almost finished the Beanie Baby book and it’s fascinating…thanks for the recommendation.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 10:58 am

      Thanks for this recommendation, I’ll take a look!

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) April 7, 2015, 8:12 am

    Your trip and That’s Not English both sound delightful to me!

  • Alise @ Read.Write.Repeat. April 7, 2015, 8:25 am

    Oh fun! I have to say, I’m super jealous. London is my favorite city in the world and I’m dying to go back. It’s been far too many years!

    Here are some Brit-centric books I’ve enjoyed:
    The Duchess of Windsor (Greg King) – all about Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom Prince Edward abdicated
    The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett) – short and sweet novella about what would happen if the Queen became obsessed with reading
    Elizabeth the Queen (Sally Bedall Smith) – light, but in-depth look into the Queen’s life
    Atonement (Ian McEwan) – gosh I love this book. I know it’s polarizing, but I’m a huge fan
    The Casual Vacancy (J. K. Rowling) – Rowling’s first foray into adult literature. Totally different than HP, but nearly as well written.

    Those are just a few! I have full reviews for each on my blog, if you want more info!

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 10:59 am

      There’s another nonfiction book that came out about Wallis Simpson that I was looking at a bit ago — super curious about her! And I loved Elizabeth the Queen, such a great biography.

  • jenn aka the picky girl April 7, 2015, 9:03 am

    So so exciting! Can’t wait to hear all about it. And I like the Susan McNeal series, too.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes April 7, 2015, 10:38 am

    Pride and Prejudice is definitely a good read if you’re going to Bath! Austen spent quite a bit of time there, and there’s a pretty decent little museum called The Jane Austen House. And Hornby is essential British reading!

  • Kristen M. April 7, 2015, 10:40 am

    London Under by Peter Ackroyd is a really great, quick nf read. Oh! And you should really read This Other London by John Rogers. He takes long walks around London and its suburbs and talks about the history and the current state of the city. It’s super fascinating!

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:00 am

      Thanks for both of these recommendations, they sound perfect. I think we’re going to have lots of time for bumming around different London neighborhoods.

  • Athira April 7, 2015, 11:40 am

    Never been to England but every year, the husband and I talk about heading there for vacation. I’d love to read that book – That’s not English. It sounds very quirky. I studied British English but now mostly use American English, so it will be fun to see some of the differences mentioned in this book.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:01 am

      I’ve been to London once in college, but this is Jenny’s first time. I think That’s Not English will be so interesting coming from your perspective.

  • C.J. @ebookclassics April 7, 2015, 12:04 pm

    I only read Pride and Prejudice for the first time last year, so I guess a few of us are a wee bit behind. Shirley Valentine is a play, not a book, but it covers you for both England and Greece. It’s about a neglected housewife who leaves her husband and finds a new lease on life in Greece. Very funny and the movie is fantastic too.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:01 am

      Thanks for that play recommendation — sounds perfect!

  • Jenny @ Reading the End April 7, 2015, 6:11 pm

    I read Watching the English on a London trip one time, and it was an excellent read for the purpose. Also, if you’re into Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere is my number-one book to read in London. I like reading it on the Tube, because the Tube features so prominently in the book itself.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:02 am

      These are perfect recommendations. I just looked up Watching the English and it looks so great!

  • Julie @ Smiling Shelves April 7, 2015, 6:41 pm

    What a fun trip! Pride & Prejudice is a must, although if you’re going to Bath, you could also read Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, because they partly take place in Bath. I also enjoyed Watching the English. Peter Ackroyd wrote a couple of interesting books about London – Thames and London Under. And Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson is hilarious. (I’m a bit of an Anglophile, so I could keep going for awhile, but I’ll stop there. 🙂 Have an amazing time!

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:04 am

      Thanks! I don’t know much about Austen, so wouldn’t have thought to grad a different one specifically set in Bath. Maybe my pre-trip Austen should be Northanger Abbey instead of P&P.

  • Christy April 7, 2015, 6:57 pm

    That sounds like an awesome trip – of course you would be ridiculously excited! 🙂
    I was going to recommend Northanger Abbey or Persuasion as well for their Bath settings but Julie beat me to it.
    Can’t say that a lot of Greek related books come to mind, other than ancient works of course. Sara Wheeler wrote a book about traveling on the island of Evia, and I liked it – she went in the 1990’s, IIRC, and some of the places still seemed thrown back in time. It’s unlikely that Evia would be on a Greek travel itinerary – it’s the largest island but pretty quiet and not known for having a lot of tourist spots.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:04 am

      Yay, more Austen recs! Thanks!

  • Jeanne April 8, 2015, 9:40 am

    Jenny took the title Neverwhere right out of my mouth. It is definitely a book you want to read if you’re riding the Tube. Similarly, UnLunDun by China Mieville is a great kind of through-the-looking-glass view of London.
    For going to Bath, you really ought to read Northanger Abbey, which is my favorite Austen anyway.
    And if you’re reading Wolf Hall…I would read it ahead of time and then read Bring Up the Bodies and then go see the plays!!!
    What plays are you seeing in London? You must see at least one. Really.
    Going to tea in London is one of my family’s favorite things. Book well ahead of time and you can get in to the Savoy or the Waldorf, and they are the best. Also call it “afternoon tea.” That’s the big, fancy one.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:06 am

      Oh, yes, UnLunDun! I should have thought of that. I love Mieville.

      We haven’t decided on plays yet, but we are definitely going to see one or two. I think we’ll get tickets for one ahead of time, then try the cheap tickets for another. Any suggestions?

      And thanks for the tip on “afternoon tea” — we have a couple places we’re checking out.

  • Jenny aka Sister April 8, 2015, 10:45 am

    LONDON!!!!!!! (and BATH and GREECE too!!!!!!!!!!)

    I am also currently reading the books from The Austen Project where Authors are reimagining Jane Austen’s stories set in modern times. I have finished Northanger Abbey and am working on the other two that are out Sense and Sensibility and Emma. So far they are fun reads for me as a big Austen fan.

    I also would love to try and re-read/read all of the original Austen novels before the trip because now seems as good of time as any and I bought a beautiful boxed set as a present to myself.

    Outside of Austen I have started a whole long list of wish list e-books on my local library website as I am thinking this will be the most convenient way to bring many books to read without taking up valuable luggage space :).

    Keep up the recommendations they are a great way to get more book ideas for the trip!

  • Jennine G. April 8, 2015, 11:17 am

    Notes From a Small Island. I haven’t read it, but love Bill Bryson, so I trust it’s worth a look! That trip sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to see pics and hear about it!

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:07 am

      I struggle with Bill Bryson’s travel writing… I find him kind of annoying! But maybe he’s better in a more familiar country? I’ll have to check it out.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) April 8, 2015, 11:31 am

    One of my all time favorite books is set in London – The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. Also Love, Nina is a great memoir and I believe is going to be made into a mini series with script by Nick Hornby. I could go on …

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:08 am

      Thanks for these! I will check them out.

  • Care April 8, 2015, 12:14 pm

    Have a fab trip! Of course you will.
    Here’s my suggestion, set in Athens: Everything Beautiful Began After
    by Simon Van Booy

  • Heather April 8, 2015, 4:42 pm

    My mother and I are going to London and Bath (no Greece) in May. I’m so excited.

  • Lisa April 8, 2015, 5:11 pm

    What a great trip! I like your reading list.

  • Laura @Booksnob April 8, 2015, 8:22 pm

    You two are going to have so much fun. I have been to Greece and absolutely love it there. I would recommend reading The Naked Olympics. It is seriously awesome.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:09 am

      Thanks for that one! I definitely want to read something about the ancient Olympics.

  • Trisha April 8, 2015, 9:34 pm

    I am so jealous! What a wonderful trip.

  • Belle Wong April 8, 2015, 11:30 pm

    It sounds like it will be such a fun trip! And you’re really going to enjoy Pride & Prejudice! I’ve had Wolf Hall on my TBR for a while now. I need to get to it sooner rather than later. I would second Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – really fun read.

    • Kim Ukura April 9, 2015, 11:10 am

      Thanks for the second on the Bryson! I am skeptical of him, but if lots of people like this one it’s worth giving it a try.

  • Jackie (Farm Lane Books) April 10, 2015, 1:13 pm

    How exciting! I’ve not read any of the books you mention (apart from Wolf Hall, which wasn’t for me) I recommend Great Expectations – it is much easier to read than I imagined it would be. I also think JK Rowling’s book is a good choice – she really gets the British class system. Have you read Fingersmith? Another great choice for London.

    I live just outside London so let me know if you’d like someone to show you where the good bookshops are – or you are welcome to come here and I’ll cook you all a traditional British roast dinner. Don’t worry if you don’t have time (I know what packed overseas trips are like!) but if you do have time I’d love to see you 🙂

    • Kim Ukura April 11, 2015, 6:40 pm

      YES! I would love to see you. We’re still working out the details for what we’re trying to squeeze in, but I am making it a priority to see some bookstores and just hang out. I will e-mail you when things get a little closer and we can figure something out.

  • Alisa @ Papercuttts April 10, 2015, 10:32 pm

    I’m jealous! I love love love love Pride and Prejudice. I went to the UK last September, and was able to visit Jane Austen’s house. It takes some effort to get there, but I had so much fun because she is one of my heroines! I didn’t make it to Bath, but it’s talked about soo much in Regency fiction that I’m sure I’ll have to go there next time I’m in England.

    • Kim Ukura April 11, 2015, 6:41 pm

      My sister is a big P&P lover, and I’m starting to be won over. I just need to finally get on reading the book!

  • Kailana April 11, 2015, 9:30 am

    I am sure your trip will be an amazing experience! And it is great when you can tie things into getting more books. 🙂

  • Katie @ Doing DDewey April 11, 2015, 4:26 pm

    How fun! I hope you have a wonderful time 🙂 I’m actually travelling to Dublin for a conference and I’d love to do some Dublin-focused reading before I go.

    • Kim Ukura April 11, 2015, 6:42 pm

      I don’t do a ton of reading on a place before I travel there, but this is such a big, once in a lifetime kind of trip that I’m reading as a way to get even more excited about it.

  • Colleen April 12, 2015, 4:40 pm

    The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British reminds me a bit of That’s Not English – I really enjoyed her observations of the British. I also really enjoyed Mrs. Queen Takes the Train which is a fictional story of the Queen’s escape from the Palace and the train ride she takes – it was very well done and amusing. Enjoy your trip – it sounds great!

    • Kim Ukura April 13, 2015, 8:59 pm

      Mrs. Queen… sounds so fun! I will look for that one.

  • Florinda April 13, 2015, 12:04 am

    i read Funny Girl for the PCHH book club podcast–my review will post this week. It’s not my first Hornby, and it’s a bit different from some of his earlier novels, but I liked it quite a bit. I’ll be following your travel plans–my husband and I are FINALLY getting passports, and England is very high on our travel wish list!

    • Kim Ukura April 13, 2015, 9:00 pm

      I will keep you posted! I’ve been to London once, but this is Jenny’s first trip. I’m looking forward to seeing some places I went before as well as having some new experiences. Plus laying on a beach in Greece. I cannot wait for that!

  • susan April 14, 2015, 2:01 pm

    The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is a fun one; Atonement is great; definitely a Charles Dickens novel is necessary!; White Teeth is sprawling but impressive; Hilary Mantel is a bit tough. Go for something more readable. Charlotte Gray or Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is good too. Have fun!