Books set in England – World Party Reading Challenge

Houses of Parliament. Image courtesy of Maurice via Wikimedia CommonsThis month we turn to England for our World Party Reading Challenge – and I have to admit that for me, a country like England is more of a challenge than just about any other country we have looked at.

I mean where do you start? There must be hundreds of thousands of novels set in England to choose from.

If you don’t actually live in England yourself, you may very well have quite a romantic view of the country. You might be considering a bit of Jane Austen or one of the Bronte sisters for your choice of novel. And why not? Reading Austen is a delight, and I am in awe of the ‘art of conversation’ which is revealed through her writing. I could never imagine being that witty in my day-to-day discussions with people. But then again, I guess in those days young ladies had a lot more time to develop their witty turns of phrase than those of us battling commuter traffic each day in the modern age. If you are hankering for a bit of England from days gone by, then this is ideal.

View Books set in England

You could go for some war-time drama, definitely one of the defining periods of English history. Books like The Night Watch by Sarah Waters or Andrea Levy’s Small Island give us quite a picture of what it was like to be in London when German bombs were falling from the sky.

And then there is a novel that has been recommended to me many times, but which I have not yet got around to reading, and that is the 1889 classic Three Men in a Boat, which I am reliably informed is one of the funniest books on earth. It is about three hypochondriacs (and a dog) who decide to head up the River Thames in a rowboat for an adventure in rough living. Not only is it bound to make you laugh, you will get a lovely glimpse of English river life.

There is high praise indeed from John Neville on Amazon.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you read it. This is quite simply the funniest book ever written in the English language. Yes, it’s based in an age long gone; but it’s great to know that self-effacing, typical British humour hasn’t changed one iota.”

But I decided to read something far more gritty and confronting, especially for someone who actually lives in the UnitedBooks set in England Kingdom.

Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds is not an easy read.

It is the story of a group of people who live in contemporary London – a Zimbabwean taxi driver, a South African teacher, an American journalist, a British human rights lawyer, a Russian au pair and a young Ukrainian girl who is trafficked to the UK to become a prostitute. It may seem a motley crew of characters, but it is probably far more representative of London than in most other novels you will read.

The story begins with the dumping of a body near the ponds at Hampstead Heath (an old stomping ground of mine – so I was immediately hooked), which in the end, connects all these characters together.

What is challenging about this novel is that it forces us to see that while we all go about our generally middle-class British lives, there is an underworld on which the whole city depends. Most of London’s middle-class could not exist in its current state without its Polish cleaners, East European nannies and African and Middle Eastern taxi-drivers. But with that comes exploitation, personified here at its very worst with Anna, the 15-year old Ukrainian who travels to England in search of a better life and a job as a chambermaid or a waitress, only to be thrown deep into the sex-trade.

Some people have criticized this novel for being too preachy – but if it makes any of us take a little closer look at London, and the people that gravitate towards it, then it has done its job. Yes, it’s a city of high-fliers — city-bankers, pop stars and foreign millionaires fill the newspapers with their exploits — but this is also a city in which those on the minimum wage cannot afford to take the train, relying instead on two-hour bus journeys to travel to work each day as cleaners at the Houses of Parliament. And that is the world we know about. There is plenty more that we do not.

Hearts and Minds was an eye-opener for me. We all like to believe that others have lives which are as good as our own, especially when we live in one of the richest cities in the world. And while you hear about such things as the human ‘slave trade’ in London, we are rarely actually confronted with it. This novel makes it all too real.

This will not be for everyone, and if not, there is an endless list of books set in England available, many more than we have cataloged here at Packabook. Which ones have you been reading? Let us know in the comments below, as we explore this tiny island together…


Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.



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  1. packabook

    Hi Laurie – sorry for late reply and welcome to Packabook. This comment got missed somehow. I haven’t yet read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – did you enjoy it? And what country are you off to next?


  2. Laurie

    My book group is spending 2012 reading around the world. The book set in England that we read for February was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. very British!


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