The Wild Places
by Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane begins The Wild Places by climbing a tree near his home. As he looks out over the English countryside and describes it for us we know we are about to begin a journey with a true nature adventurer and an eloquent writer. This is a book for those who like to travel to out-of-the-way places. Macfarlane begins his journey with the question: are there are any truly wild places left in Britain and Ireland. He searches for curious and resonant landscapes. He sleeps and hikes in the cold and wet in order to experience these places. He takes us all over the island: where the early monks lived on an isle off the coast to cliff-tops and tors, weaving history and local lore into the landscape. He writes with a poet's ear and brings together his own life with that of the surroundings. Every time he swam in some new icy waters, I admired his amazing vigor and love of the outdoors (shivering while I read). If you are considering a hiking or driving tour of the British Isles, this non-fiction gem would be a fine and gentle companion.
"An eloquent (and compulsively readable) reminder that, though we're laying waste the world, nature still holds sway over much of the earth's surface." – Bill McKibben
"I could not now say when I first grew to love the wild, only that I did, and that a need for it will always remain strong in me. As a child, whenever I read the word, it conjured images of wide spaces, remote and figureless. Isolated islands off Atlantic coasts. Unbounded forests, and blue snow-light falling on to drifts marked with the paw-prints of wolves. Frost-shattered summits and corries folding lochs of great depth. And this was the vision of a wild place that had stayed with me: somewhere boreal, wintry, vast, isolated, elemental, demanding of the traveller in its asperities. To reach a wild place was, for me, to step outside human history." – The Wild Places, Penguin, 2008 edition.
The Cazalet Chronicles
by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A series of four novels, The Light Years, being the first, The Cazalet Chronicles follows a British family from 1937 through World War II. The novels read like a soap opera, yet the writing is fine and full of descriptions of Britain's upper-middle class life before and during the war. Quaint but engrossing, these are books to get lost in while traveling through the countryside of England.
"The fan of sagas full of slice-of-life detail may find the book too short, while the lover of catharsis will feel it stops short of its goal." – Publishers Weekly
"It's clear that this is Howard's beloved turf ... and that she knows how to bring it to life for readers ... masterly." – Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times
"'Full many a glorious morning have I seen,'" she muttered when she was past him. When she married, her husband would find her quite remarkable because she could think of a Shakespeare quotation for anything – anything at all that happened. On the other hand, she might not marry anybody because Polly said that sex was very boring and you couldn't really go in for marriage without it." – The Light Years, Washington Square Press, 1995 edition.
The Needle's Eye
by Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble can write about contemporary London as well as any writer today. If you want to get to know characters that you might meet when you are riding the bus, or the Tube, or sitting in an ordinary pub, try this novel. The suburbs of London, the terraced houses, the upper class houses: these all come to life. The characters seem incredibly real, with moral and domestic issues that reverberate through our modern times. Yet Rose, the main character, finds humor and enchantment in a life that isn't an easy one. Drabble is a first-rate novelist and this is one of her best.
"Though I have admired Miss Drabble's writing for years, I will admit that nothing she has written in the past quite prepared me for the depth and richness of The Needle's Eye." – Joyce Carol Oates
"The Needle's Eye is that rare thing, a book one wishes were longer than it is." – The New York Review of Books
"What raffish districts of London his friends inhabited: NW1, this was, with all its smart contrasts. They depressed him unbearably, the well-arranged gulfs and divisions of life, the frivolity with which his friends took in these contrasts, the pleasure they took in such abrasions. It appalled him, the complacency with which such friends would describe the advantages of living in a mixed area. As though they licensed seedy old ladies and black men to walk their streets, teaching their children of poverty and despair, as their pet hamsters and guinea pigs taught them of sex and death." – The Needle's Eye, Harcourt, 1972 edition.
by Monica Ali
One cannot visit London without being aware that it is an amazingly international city, maybe the most international city in the world. Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Africans and probably someone from every country in the world make up the cosmopolitan mix. The main character in Brick Lane, Nazneen, has come to London from Bangladesh and confronts a life completely foreign from the life at home, and totally isolating. Here we are allowed to look closely at life in Brick Lane, an immigrant section of London, to see behind the walls and directly into the sadness and terrors as well as the joy of the humans who live there. Ali has been named by the literary journal Granta as one of Britain's twenty best novelists.
"At once sophisticated and innocent, compassionate and entertaining." – The Los Angeles Times
"Ali is extraordinary at capturing the female immigrant experience through her character's innocent perspective." – Booklist
"Nazneen waved at the tattoo lady. The tattoo lady was always there when Nazneen looked out across the dead grass and broken paving stones to the block opposite. Most of the flats, which enclosed three sides of a square, had net curtains, and the life behind was all shapes and shadows. But the tattoo lady had no curtains at all. Morning and afternoon she sat with her big thighs spilling over the sides of her chair, tipping forward to drop ash in a bowl, tipping back to slug from her can. She drank now, and tossed the can out of the window." – Brick Lane, Scribner, 2004 edition.
The Rings of Saturn
by W.G. Sebald
W.G. Sebald, the German writer, took a walking trip through Suffolk in 1992 and this book is the result. The book combines a strange and fascinating mixture of fact and fiction. He not only writes of the trip as he experiences it, but also delves deeply into history. Sebald is definitely a challenging writer but the reader will find herself on a journey like no other. The past and the present come brilliantly alive as you walk along with Sebald. Shortlisted for the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Award in fiction.
"Stunning and strange ... Sebald has done what every writer dreams of doing. ...xThe book is like a dream you want to last forever. ...xIt glows with the radiance and resilience of the human spirit." – Roberta Silman, The New York Times Book Review
"Ostensibly a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia, The Rings of Saturn is also a brilliantly allusive study of Englands' imperial past and the nature of decline and fall, of loss and decay … exhilaratingly, you might say hypnotically, readable." – Robert McCrum, London Observer
"In August 1992 when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point, for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast." – The Rings of Saturn, New Directions, 1999 edition.
by Edward Rutherfurd
For readers who enjoy James Michener's books I would recommend Edward Rutherfurds' Sarum. The author follows five families through several centuries, from the Stone Age to recent times. Energetically written, with much action and good description of the times, this book will satisfy those who love sprawling sweeps of history.
"Bursts with action, encyclopedic in historic detail ... supremely well-crafted and a delight to read." – Chicago Tribune
"First before the beginning of Sarum, came a time when the world was a colder and darker placex...x. Over a huge area of the northern hemisphere – perhaps a sixth of the whole globe – stretched a mighty covering of ice. It lay over all of northern Asia; it covered Canada, Scandinavia and about two thirds of the future land of Britainx...x. This was the colder, darker world, some twenty thousand years before the birth of Christ." – Sarum, Ballantine Books, 1987.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are two of a trilogy (the last not published at the time of this review) about the life of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of King Henry VIII. In case you think you aren't interested in Thomas Cromwell, the king's right hand man, think again. Blending fact with fiction these novels put the reader right in the center of intrigue, court life, as well as the plots to discard unwanted queens. Cromwell, although a flawed human, looms large and influential. Both novels won the Man Booker Award, the first in 2009 and the second in 2012.
" ... a darkly brilliant reimagining of life under Henry VIII. … Magnificent." – The Boston Globe
"Both this new book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. One of the reasons for this literary success is that Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties." – James Wood, The New Yorker
"The king had left Whitehall the week of Thomas More's death, a miserable dripping week in July, the hoof prints of the royal entourage sinking deep into the mud as they tacked their way across to Windsor. Since then the progress has taken in a swathe of the western counties; the Cromwell aides, having finished up the king's business at the London end, met up with the royal train in mid-August. The king and his companions sleep sound in new houses of rosy brick, in old houses whose fortifications have crumbled away or been pulled down, and in fantasy castles like toys, castles never capable of fortification, with walls a cannonball would punch in as if they were paper. England has enjoyed fifty years of peace. This is the Tudors' covenant; peace is what they offer." – Bring Up the Bodies, Henry Holt and Co., 2012 edition.
Restoration: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century England
by Rose Tremain
Short-listed for the Booker Prize, Tremain’s novel transcends the historical novel designation. This is the story of one man, Robert Merivel, as well as a story of the psychological, scientific and cultural history of the times. The description of the Great Fire of London is an example of how Tremain presents the reader with vivid portraits of events and characters of an earlier century. Rich and energetic. You will love reading this novel.
"Tremain has given (Merivel) a prose that echoes the sentence patterns of the late 17th century, but only distantly, so that it never seems quaint.” – John Mullan, The Guardian
“Superb.” – The New York Times Book Review
"My name is Robert Merivel, and, although I’m dissatisfied with other of my appendages (viz. my flat nose), I am exceedingly happy with my name, because to its Frenchness I owe a great deal of my fortune. Since the return of the King, French things are in fashion: heels, mirrors, sedan-chairs, silver toothbrushes, fans and fricassées. And names.” – Restoration, Penguin Books, 1994 edition.