Have Book, Will Travel: England
I have been fortunate to travel to England several times in the last two years to visit my daughter. Now that I’ve taken in the history, charm and beauty of London and the English countryside, I find I am drawn to books that bring me back to my fun adventures.
When you are in England, you can’t escape news about the royal family. The last time I was in London, Queen Elizabeth had come down with a stomach bug which required hospitalization. The television stations were beside themselves with hourly coverage about how yes, the Queen was STILL in the hospital. I’ve grown fond of the Queen over the years and find her determination and devotion inspiring. At 87 years old, she is still always on the go. I enjoyed two lovely books that show different sides of the Queen: An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn.
When Queen Elizabeth accidently visits a mobile library outside Buckingham Palace in An Uncommon Reader, her discovery triggers a love of reading. I read this charming novella in an afternoon, and especially love this quote, from the queen to her personal secretary (who hails from New Zealand), when he questions the queen's book obsession: “Pass the time?’’ said the Queen. “Books are not about passing time. They’re about other lives. Other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it. If one wanted to pass the time one could go to New Zealand.’’ The queen eventually thinks about writing her own book. Wouldn't that be marvelous?
In Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, the author imagines what happens when the Queen decides to take off on her own from Buckingham Palace to Scotland without telling anyone. Of course, pandemonium ensues at Buckingham Palace, with a loyal staff trying to keep the Queen’s disappearance a secret. The Queen ends up getting assistance of a female stable hand and a fellow who works in a cheese shop. Her interactions with the common folk on her train ride are priceless.
World War II
Reminders of the Second World War and its devastation are abundant when you visit London, from the many excellent museums to the HMS Belfast docked on the Thames. Two books helped me capture those grueling times for the English: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Life After Life is filled with great insights about what it was like to live in England before and during World War II. Atkinson really gave me a feeling for what Brits lived through during the horrific bombing blitz by the Germans. But this is much more than historical fiction. Atkinson makes us wonder what it would be like to have a complete do-over with our lives, not just once, but many times. What an original, thoughtful book that shows how our lives can go so many different ways, depending on chance and the choices we make.
I love historical fiction, especially books about feisty young women who are forced to handle difficult circumstances. Code Name Verity is such a book. Elizabeth Wein tells the story of two young women who are best friends during the height of World War II. Julie works as an undercover agent and Maddie is a young pilot. When their British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France, their lives are forever changed. The narration of the book at first can be confusing, but don’t let that put you off. Hang in there, and it will all make sense. Just remember that the person narrating the first part of the book is the voice of Julie, or “Verity.’’ Code Name Verity is cataloged as Young Adult, but I think this book belongs in the adult fiction section. So if you enjoy historical fiction, give this book a go.
The Last Detective'' is the first book in the Peter Diamond mystery series. I had so much fun recognizing the places in the story, but you don't have to be familiar with the delights of Bath to enjoy the book. I also appreciated how the author threw in references to Jane Austen, who lived in Bath for several years. The mystery series generally is located in Bath, but the second book, Diamond Solitaire, is set in London, with the opening scene at Harrods Department Store.
Persuasion was the last novel Jane Austen wrote before she died. Anne Elliot, at the age of 27, is Austen's most grown-up heroine. When Anne walks away from the love of her life because her family and friends don’t think he is good enough for her, she is filled with remorse. Her long-lost love comes back into her life eight years later as a successful naval captain, constantly reminding Anne of her painful choices. I had so much fun imagining Jane Austen and her characters walking the streets of cosmopolitan Bath, where the smart set liked to be seen at the Pump Room and live in the Royal Crescent.
I still have many books I want to tackle. Next on the list is Hillary Mantel’s award-winning novels about Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. After visiting Henry’s Hampton Court Palace and walking around the Tower of London, these books are must reads for me.
What British books have you enjoyed?