Books are the most amazing form of escape: turn the pages and you can be transported into an entirely different universe, dimension or world. Of course, you don’t have to go quite that far, if you don’t want to. If you’d rather travel a little closer to home, books can also whisk you away to another part of our world, showing you the streets of another city, or the landscapes of a country far from home.
Right now, when our regular travel options are a little bit limited, one of the best ways to get a taste for a new destination is through the magic of books. No flight required, no visa needed, and absolutely no jet lag to contend with. And if it’s London you’re looking to explore, there’s no shortage of books based in London (& beyond) that you should read in lockdown.
Here are a few I think you’ll love:
1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Originally a serial published in monthly instalments in a magazine, Oliver Twist has now become a classic novel, depicting London in the mid-19th century. Oliver’s tale begins in the rough workhouses of the fictional town of Mudfog, but when he escapes, he travels to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger.
Through its many twists and turns, Oliver Twist offers an insight into 19th century London, and the struggles of the working class under the harsh new ‘Poor Laws’. But it also offers a literary tour of London, with no fewer than 90 references to specific locations in the city!
2. London Eyes by Frances M. Thompson
If you’re having trouble concentrating right now (I mean, there is a LOT going on in the world), short stories are the perfect way to escape for very small chunks of time. They offer all the fulfilment of a full-length story in bite-sized pieces, and if they’re well-written, they’ll have you thinking about them for days and weeks to come.
Frances M. Thompson’s London Eyes is a brilliant collection of London-themed short stories. I read them years ago, but there are a couple that I still think about to this day. And the sense of place in them is fantastic – you’ll be taken from Shepherd’s Bush to the London Underground, Angel, Elephant & Castle, and plenty more.
Get the London Eyes book at Books a Million
3. The 392 by Ashley Hickson-Lovence
Set entirely on the 392 bus in the space of just 36 minutes, The 392 offers a peek into a quintessential slice of contemporary London life: the London bus.
The cast of characters travelling from Hoxton to Highbury on the fictional 392 route is as varied and diverse as you’d expect to find on any East London bus, and each is beautifully portrayed in their own words. Author Ashley Hickson-Lovence says of his incredible debut, ‘The 392 is a voice-driven, tension-building text, which hopefully explores themes of ‘other-ness’, perception and prejudice.’
4. A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen
Londoner James Bowen once struggled with homelessness and addiction, busking on the streets in the day to support himself. When he eventually moved into a flat of his own, he met Bob, an injured ginger tomcat, who he took under his wing – despite a pet being the last thing he needed.
Bob and James formed an unlikely friendship, and soon Bob was joining James as he busked on the streets. The pair became inseparable, and their adventures together are told in this heartwarming true story. Since it was written, A Street Cat Named Bob has been adapted into a film, which stars the late, great Bob himself!
5. Darling by Rachel Edwards
Darling isn’t actually set in London (which is why I added the ‘and beyond’ bit to this list) but it’s so relevant to Britain today (Elle Magazine called it the ‘first Brexit thriller’) that I absolutely had to include it here.
Opening on the day of the UK’s historic (and controversial) Brexit vote, we meet Darling, a Black British woman, who begins a whirlwind romance with Thomas. She soon meets Thomas’ daughter Lola, and the tension begins to unfold between the two women. Within six months, one of them is dead.
Exploring themes of race, love and post-Brexit Britain, Darling is a twisty, shocking thriller that will leave you reeling.
6. The Guilty Wife by Elle Croft
My own debut novel was set in London, a city I’ve lived in for a decade, and which is such a joy to write about. Big cities offer a certain amount of anonymity, which I wanted to explore when I wrote this book. Could you murder someone in a massive city without anyone knowing? And could someone conceivably make it look like you’d committed murder if you hadn’t?
With scenes set in South Kensington, Hyde Park, Canary Wharf, Battersea Park and Knightsbridge, The Guilty Wife follows photographer Bethany Reston as she tries to prove her innocence after being framed for the murder of her secret lover.
7. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
If you love the writings of Sally Rooney, Dolly Alderton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, you need to pick up Queenie, the Sunday Times Bestseller that was also shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.
Following the life of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London and trying to work out her place in the world, Queenie explores themes of cultural and personal identity, relationships, family, race, and anxiety, through the eyes of the sometimes self-destructive, often funny and extremely relatable Queenie.
8. The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Another one that’s not London-based, but just outside (day-trippable, for those keen to explore Austen’s old stomping ground when you do visit London), in the village of Chawton, Hampshire.
Set in the 1940s, The Jane Austen Society follows an unlikely group of Austen enthusiasts as they unite to preserve the legacy of their favourite author before it’s gone for ever. Each character has their own quirks and troubles, and seeing them work together, overcoming their own obstacles, makes this a joy to read. Heartwarming and oh-so British, fans of Jane Austen won’t want to miss this wonderful tale.
9. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Nazneen arrives in London’s East End from Bangladesh when she’s still just a teenager, to enter into an arranged marriage.
London is a strange new world for Nazneen, who doesn’t speak any English, to navigate, but as she learns more about her new home, she also learns more about herself and what she truly desires. Brick Lane beautifully and powerfully portrays the life of an immigrant arriving in London, and it explores the role of fate in our lives.
10. About a Boy by Nick Hornby
You may have seen the film (starring Hugh Grant, Toni Collette and Nicholas Hoult), but the book is still absolutely worth a read.
About a Boy follows 36-year-old bachelor Will as he forms a reluctant relationship with twelve year old Marcus (whose mum he met when he was trying to pick up women at a single parents’ group). Set in North London in the nineties, this novel is at times heartwarmingly funny, at times heartbreakingly sad, but always dripping with dry English humour and clever dialogue.
11. Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
This historical thriller, set in London’s Docklands in the eighteenth century, opens with the discovery of an unidentified body hanging from a hook at Deptford Dock, branded with a slaver’s mark. What follows is the investigation by war hero Captain Harry Corsham as he seeks to uncover what happened to the man, identified as passionate abolitionist Tad Archer.
Blood & Sugar explores a dark side of British history, showing the horrors of the British slave trade, while also describing the details of London at that time – with all of its sights and sounds and smells. It’s been nominated for, and won, a handful of awards, and for very good reason!
Get the Blood & Sugar book at Waterstones
There are so many other amazing books based in London that I haven’t mentioned here – the city has been a haven to (and no doubt a muse for) countless writers throughout the decades – but if you start with these ones you’ll get a good idea of London past and present, from a variety of perspectives and in a wide range of voices.
Have you read any books based in London that I haven’t included here? Which ones would you recommend? Let me know in the comments below so I can add them to my reading list!
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