Top Ten Tuesday: Recommendations for Londonphiles


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week’s TTT theme is all to do with book recommendations and I confess to having had a bit of a brain freeze with this one; nothing really seemed to be coming to mind. I’ve plumped for the above purely because we had a day out in the big city last month and I’ve been mulling this list quietly over in my mind ever since. This week seemed like a good enough time to put it to use.

Many a moon ago I lived in London but I now only really get to experience it once or twice a year as a country-mouse day-tripper fresh off the train. It’s a strange turnaround and my feelings on the subject are mind-bogglingly complicated – I mean, really, who knew I could feel quite so many things about something so simple? – and while I never feel truly myself when I’m in London these days I’m still quite disgustingly fond of the place. In its honour here are some books that have attempted to bring the city to life:

1. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s imagined city beneath the city feels so alive. It’s bizarre and wonderfully inventive and definitely my favourite Gaiman novel so far.

2. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. An agonising love affair set amongst the bombed out houses of Blitz London.

3. The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. A multi-layered and immensely detailed novel partly set around the foundation of the Victoria & Albert Museum which will always be one of my favourite places to visit in London.

4. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. You could pick almost any Dickens’ book here but I particularly like this one. The characters that populate the dreary Thames’ shores and fancy parlours of the novel are among his best. [Review here].

5. Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. As a teenager this was the kind of London I imagined for my adult self; all swanky black cabs, trendy flats, office parties and handsome co-workers. Ridiculous.

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. As an adult this is the kind of London I like to imagine for myself.

7. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. Ok, so I didn’t love this. But I think the idea is a great one and, like Gaiman, Aaronovitch shows that fantastical, otherworldly Londons can feel as exciting and real as the city itself. [Review here].

8. About A Boy by Nick Hornby. Or, in fact, most Nick Hornby novels.

9. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. It’s not too long since I read this so it’s still on my mind. For Waugh’s wealthy, carefree Londoners the city is a shallow whirlwind of wild parties, fleeting relationships and senseless fun. [Review here].

10. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I think of all the fictional Londons I’ve listed this is the one that most closely resembles the ‘real’ one, if such a thing exists, or at least it most reminds me of the one I lived in as a child.

All done. I’m trying to get back into the habit of Top Ten Tuesdays as they’ve fallen by the wayside over the past few months. Next week’s is a back to school related freebie so I’m desperately trying to think of something now… We’ll see how it goes.


84 Charing Cross Road (1971) by Helene Hanff


I’m kicking myself for not being able to get hold of a second hand copy of this book. As a book about the love of books, old books especially, it really calls out to be read second hand:

“I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else has turned and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to…”

I bought my copy in Waterstones last weekend for a whopping £7.99. I know that’s not really a lot but it occurred to me afterwards that I once bought six second-hand books in the Oxfam shop for a similar amount. Oh Waterstones. The real problem, I think, is that I’ve never really forgiven them for doing away with their regular 3-for-2 deal a few years ago. I just need to get over it. Anyway, I nearly didn’t buy 84 Charing Cross Road at all but while I was reading the blurb for the third time and ‘umming’ and ‘aahing’ in indecision a nice lady came up and told me how much she loved it. “I grew up in London in the 60s”, she said. “This book describes it exactly as I want to remember it.” So I bought the book.

84 Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters rather than a memoir. In 1949 Hanff was a poor New York writer “with an antiquarian taste in books”, books that she couldn’t find in libraries and bookshops at home. In desperation she wrote to Marks & Co. Booksellers, of 84 Charing Cross Road in London, supplying a list of books that she’d be interested in purchasing. Her letter sparked a twenty year long cross-Atlantic correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel, Marks & Co.’s head buyer. She and Frank discussed books (of course), as well as dentistry and sports teams and their families. On several occasions Hanff sent him food parcels for doling out between staff in the shop who were still subject to post-war rationing. In return she was sent linen tablecloths and Yorkshire Pudding recipes along with her constant supply of antiquarian books.

I imagine Helene Hanff would have been a wonderful person to know. Her letters are funny and thoughtful and completely disarming. In one letter she’d be gushing about the wonderful tomes she’d been sent, in the next she’d be mock berating Frank for his failure to find an exact volume she wanted.

“I could ROT over here before you’d send me anything to read. I oughta run straight down to brentano’s, which I would if anything I wanted was in print.

You may add Walton’s Lives to the list of books you aren’t sending me…. “

I suppose the informality of it all must have been quite alarming for poor Frank at first but you can tell that he took real joy from these letters. I love the contrast between this warmhearted, brash New Yorker and Frank’s very British stiff-upper-lip reserve.

The correspondence between Helene and Frank and their various friends is touching and, in places, just downright funny. I got a little choked up at one point which I swear almost NEVER happens when I’m reading. Maybe the difference here is that these were real people, not fictional ones. But either way I was genuinely saddened.

My shiny new fresh-from-Waterstones copy of this book includes its sequel, The Duchess Of Bloomsbury Street, which was published three years after 84 Charing Cross Road became a hit. It takes the form of Helene’s diary, published in 1974 but written in 1971 when she finally made her long awaited trip to London. She was able to meet some of her long distance correspondents, visit the now empty Marks & Co. shop and tour the old haunts of her favourite writers. I liked this almost as much as 84 Charing Cross Road, mainly because it’s so nice to see London through the eyes of someone who had never been before. Her love for a city that she’d never visited is kind of lovely.

Sometimes at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I’d put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.”

This book made me feel stupidly nostalgic and almost patriotic (which isn’t something I experience often). How nice it would be if the art of letter writing was alive and well (the only person I ever write to is my grandad) and we were still happy to invite strangers into our homes for strawberries and cream in the rose garden. Sigh.

It’s impossible not to like this book. I’m so pleased I finally got round to reading it.

Rivers Of London / Midnight Riot (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch


“So magic is real,” I said. “Which makes you a… what?”

“A wizard.” 

“Like Harry Potter?” 

Nightingale sighed. “No,” he said. “Not like Harry Potter.”

I’m pretty indecisive. I like to take a day or two to mull over a book before I write a review, just in case I change my mind and regret it later. You can imagine, then, how strange it was for me to read Rivers of London and know almost immediately how I felt about it. In fact, I’d made up my mind before I was half way through so actually finishing the book was just a formality. I’m not sure I like it when my feelings are so clear cut (some ambiguity is good, right?) but it certainly makes organising my thoughts for this review much easier!

Peter Grant, the narrator, is a young constable at the end of his probationary period in the Met Police. While guarding a murder scene late at night he interviews a very chatty witness whom, he later realises, has been deceased for some time. This ghostly discovery alters the course of his career. He abandons a future spent pushing paper in an administrative department to work for Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, in the  Economic and Specialist Crime division. Here he trains as an apprentice wizard, mediates between warring river gods and hunts down a vengeful spirit who’s been re-enacting the gruesome plot of a Punch & Judy show on the streets of London.

So here’s the good stuff…. I liked the narration. Grant is a funny guy and his dry humour is one of the things that made this book readable and entertaining. Through him Aaronovitch can also chuck in references to Time Team, Harry Potter and Twilight without making it feel like he’s trying too hard to be contemporary. It makes the setting feel very real and modern and, well, ordinary… despite the fact that there are wizards and vampires and river gods running around all over the place. I liked it, this weaving together of the ordinary and extraordinary, and sometimes I think it works quite well.

And then there’s the stuff I wasn’t so keen on and this takes a bit longer. Firstly I think Aaronovitch missed a trick with the Punch & Judy storyline. Those puppet shows can be pretty darn sinister but although Aaronovitch’s idea is a clever one it never feels particularly creepy. This could have been so much better, so much more gripping, if it had been darker. The lack of suspense isn’t really helped by the fact that there’s no sense of urgency to the murder investigation carried out by Grant and Nightingale. The pair spend ages barely doing any investigating at all which gives the impression that they aren’t overly concerned, and if they’re not bothered why should I be? I half expected that this part of the story would end up being cleverly interwoven with the river gods storyline… But no, that was completely unrelated and didn’t really seem to serve any purpose except to give the book its name (in the UK, at least).

Secondly, I had mixed feelings about some of the characters. I liked Grant at first but his narration wasn’t really enough to keep me interested on its own. I was a little disappointed by his reaction to events around him – there was no disbelief, no questioning. He accepted the existence of magic, and the sudden change in his career, very calmly and with very little fuss. It didn’t feel right. I also got a tiny bit fed up with him gawping at women’s breasts all the time. And then there were the supporting characters. Nightingale could have been really interesting but there wasn’t much effort to give him any backstory besides a couple of hints about his murky past. And the women…? If they’re not in the attractive-with-breasts-you-can-stare-at category then they’re probably vampires, a bit elderly  or an angry lesbian. Well, that’s womankind summed up quite neatly. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that the characterisation was a bit lazy and I didn’t really care about any of them.

It’s hard sometimes to write a truthful review without sounding like you’re being spiteful and I certainly don’t want to be mean. In all honesty I was at times quite entertained by Rivers Of London, particularly at the start, but overall I wasn’t wowed by it. I’ve certainly read other books with similar themes that have more intensity, cleverer plots and more interesting characters. I’ve definitely read ones that are less derivative, less sloppy. It’s possible of course that some of my issues would be addressed in the sequels but, in fairness, I probably won’t read them so I’ll never know!

This review has been sitting on my desktop for nearly a week but I’ve only today had chance to turn on the laptop and post it. I finished The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton this morning too so I’ll do my best to get a review of that up here much more promptly!

A London trip and some new books

The Dickens Museum

The Dickens Museum

This’ll be a relatively quick post – partly because I’m all tuckered out after a busy weekend but also because the last episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be on the telly shortly! Priorities and all that.

So – as the title of this post suggests – I spent yesterday in London with my best friend B. We’d been planning a bookish day in the capital for months but it kept getting put off because of work and weddings and money troubles and other such annoyances. We managed to cram a lot in to our trip, including a quick stop at the British Library where we saw Jane Austen’s writing desk, a Shakespeare First Folio and the original manuscripts of Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (amongst others). We also went to the Dickens Museum, which is a short walk away. It’s housed in Dickens’ former home on Doughty Street, where he lived for two years early in his career while he was working on Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby. I was particularly interested to see his enormous writing desk and a panel of bars from the Marshalsea Prison, where his father was imprisoned for debt and where he set some of the scenes in Little Dorrit. I don’t remember either of these items from last time I was there (admittedly that was over ten years ago) and I was struck by how much more modern and interactive the museum felt this time. I would have liked to have stayed longer but we had a more important task at hand: book shopping!

Our plan was to head to Leicester Square so we could explore some of the second hand shops that are rather neatly clustered around Charing Cross Road. I’d set myself a decent budget of £40 and made a mental list of books to look for so I was feeling pretty optimistic. We did make it to quite a few of the shops we’d identified, including the teeny tiny Marchpane, which specialises in rare children’s books. It had two whole bays of shelving devoted just to copies of Alice In Wonderland. Sadly the actual purchasing part of the trip wasn’t overly successful, mainly because I’d forgotten how much I hate the West End. I’m rubbish in crowds and not only was it rammed with tourists but it was also on the route of the Pride rally so it was even busier than usual. It was hot and noisy and hectic. Instead of having a relaxed wander round the shops we just got a bit cross and stomped about looking for a pub so we could get a cold drink to cool ourselves down (and failing miserably at that too). In the end I came home with just two new books – both from the great Henry Pordes – having spent just £6 in total. It was a bit disappointing but at least I’ve learned a lesson about book shopping in tourist hotspots on a Saturday in the summer during Pride.

This leaves the new books purchased/received in June looking like this:


The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale (already blogged here)

Coraline & Other Stories by Neil Gaiman

1215: The Year Of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham

Latin Grammar by E. C. Marchant & G. Watson

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This isn’t a bad haul so I shouldn’t really complain too much about my failure to buy heaps of books yesterday. It wasn’t that long ago that I was complaining about not having enough room to store them all!