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10 Great Books to Read If You Love London

10 Great Books to Read if You Love London | CosmosMariners.com

Anglophile. Bibliophile.

I've come by those titles honestly, as I received two degrees in Literature, taught English at the college level, studied abroad in London, and completed my M.A. thesis on post-World War II British novels. I know you're dying to hear more about my thesis (ha!), but we'll have to table that discussion for another post.

Sometimes I really, really miss London. But, most of the time, I can't just get on a plane and make my way to merry ol' England for a few days. Instead, I do what I do best and bury my nose in a book. These ten reads make me long for the winding alleyways, layered history, and warm pubs of my favorite city.

London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd. It's an inanimate thing, but London definitely has a personality. In this ambitious non-fiction work, Ackroyd looks at London's history from its earliest roots and tries to find common themes throughout London's 2,000+ year old existence. I usually don't go for non-fiction much, but I was captivated by the way that Ackroyd presents this material: it's more or less in chronological order, but he's more interested in tying together like material than he is in presenting some rigid timeline of events. Ackroyd is primarily known as a fiction writer, which likely contributes to the readability of this book. Don't be put off by its 600+ page length!

London Under, Peter Ackroyd. After writing London's biography, Ackroyd set out to explore the world below the city we all know and love. This non-fiction work also traces the history of London--but does it through its cellars, sewage systems, rivers, and dockworkers. It's the secret London that hides in plain sight and has had more to do with the history of London than you might expect.

The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad. This one's an oldie but goodie. The main character gets pulled into an anarchist bombing movement--and he's forced to make choices and then live with the consequences. One of Conrad's later political novels, The Secret Agent remains startling relevant in the rash of IRA bombings in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Al-Qaeda bombings in 2005 (which I had the horror of experiencing). While London has wonderful things to offer, violence is also an intrinsic part of the city's history, and Conrad's novel tried to make that fact accessible to the reader.

Bleeding London, Geoff Nicholson. Many times, I've held the A to Z(ed) in my hands and wondered, "How many roads are there in London? Has anyone ever tried to see all of them?" One of the characters in this quirky novel attempts to answer that question by walking down every street in his guidebook. Another character has a strange affliction: a map of London is slowly appearing on her body. Nicholson's book looks at all of the ways that we try (and fail!) to experience this city--and all of the ways that London continues to shift around those who live, work, and visit there. And for a final reason why I love this book, the title is a double entendre, and those really make life worth living.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson. I know you're probably giving me the side eye right now, as I've put this creepy book on my list of tomes that will make you remember why you love London. It's an odd choice, but the foggy, mysterious atmosphere of Stevenson's novella makes me curious about the world that was Victorian London. London's history is so layered that it's impossible for me to separate the current one from all the eras that have come before--and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde describes the late 1800s so beautifully. All of the fear around scientific advancement, the rising awareness of violent crime in the city, and the industrialization of London's commerce all come together in a magnificent (and short!) package here.

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger. Creepy and atmospheric, Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of a set of twins from America who've been deeded their aunt's apartment on the edge of Highgate Cemetery following her early death. The twins struggle in their new lives, and the solution that one of them has to finally show her sister who's right will have you wishing you could jump in and talk to both of them!

Spider, Patrick McGrath. This book was one that pushed me into doing a masters degree in British Literature. It follows the life of Dennis, who's just returned from "Canada," and who is readjusting to life in the East End. Dennis' perceptions of life become increasingly confused as he struggles with the reasons he was sent to "Canada," his family relationships, and his own sanity. Highly recommended if you're interested in stories with unreliable narrators (my favorite!).

The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi. This novel follows a half-Indian, half-white boy growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s. He feels alienated from the people around him because of his racial background, but also because his father has experienced a religious awakening of sorts and travels to their friends' homes to meditate with them. I love Kureishi's book because it gives the reader a snapshot of what London in the 60s looked like (so many movements! so many fashion trends!), while tracing the main character's desire to find himself amidst the noise of such a big city. Extra points if you read it while listening to the David Bowie soundtrack of the same name.

Shopaholic series, Sophie Kinsella. I had to include this entry so you wouldn't think that all I read are these dark, brooding books. The Shopaholic series is light and fluffy and fun, and I love reading Kinsella's dialogue--I end up reading to myself in a (horribly fake) English accent which only makes the entire experience more fun.

Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding. Another fun book about London, Bridget Jones is everyone's favorite anti-heroine. Even when she's going on about her weight, I'm still pretty sure that she and I could be best friends and live in a flat and gossip all of the time.

Honorable mentions: anything by Charles Dickens (there were too many to include on the list!), Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd.

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