To read or not to read: British books to binge before your London holiday

Stack of London Explores Books
Medill graduate students read books about British culture to prepare for their trip across the pond. (Samantha Thomas/MEDILL)

By Medill Explores: Arts and Culture in London students
Medill Reports

Why not grab a cup of tea and curl up with an England- or royals-themed novel, guide or exposé? Medill master’s students turned hundreds of pages to immerse themselves in U.K. culture before heading across the pond.


Royal reads


The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown
Courtesy of Amazon

“The Diana Chronicles,” British journalist Tina Brown’s 2007 biography of “the people’s princess,” thoroughly covers both famous and intimate moments from a highly scrutinized life and death. The former editor-in-chief of Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker interviewed 250 people, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair, former aides, royal biographers and peripheral characters from Diana’s life. Despite the plethora of voices, the biography struggles to provide a fresh perspective. Even after sharing a meal with Diana, Brown’s glimpse into who the late princess was, outside of the public eye, still reads like an outsider looking in. Given the tight-lipped nature of the royal family, the sources’ insight and stories of Diana feel like continued gossip, rather than an understanding of who she was at her core. Brown speculates about what Diana thought and felt, which comes across entirely like guesswork. In one instance, Brown claims, “Diana grew up associating the camera with love”— a bold, unsubstantiated stretch, based simply on her father’s fondness for photography. Oddly, the book lacks any pictures of the princess — ironic given the exorbitant number of images of her throughout her life and her tumultuous dynamic with the press. – Samantha Thomas


Prince William: The Boy Who Will Be King by Randi Reisfeld
Courtesy of Amazon

In “Prince William (The Boy Who Will Be King),” Randi Reisfeld, author of the popular young adult series “T*Witches,” needs just 160 pages to playfully introduce the House of Windsor and English monarchy to tweens and teens. In 12 chronological chapters, she breezily covers the first 15 years of William’s life as heir to the British throne. Light and casual (she exclusively refers to the future king as “Wills,” Princess Diana’s nickname for her son), this glimpse into the Prince of Wales’ childhood is punctuated by the author’s liberal use of exclamation points. Reisfeld presents the monarchy favorably, glossing over issues like colonialism while calling the births of William and brother Harry “blessed events.” The unauthorized biography whisks readers through many of Wills’ formative experiences and royal training, while arguing he’s a normal kid who just so happens to be a prince. The overwhelming majority of information Reisfeld includes already has been widely publicized. She confines new details about the prince to random factlets (did you know Queen Elizabeth II’s personal gynecologist delivered him?) and sometimes hard-to-believe anecdotes, including gossip surrounding his parents’ infidelities. Ten glossy photos of William and his family mid-book add color to these tales. – Sylvie Kirsch


British life and language


Fancy a Cuppa? The Hilarious Pocket Guide to British Slang by Jeff Watson
Courtesy of Amazon

Blimey, reader! Down on your teatime bromides and cockney slang? In “Fancy a Cuppa? The Hilarious Pocket Guide to British Slang,” English soccer commentator Jeff Watson explains what the bloody hell all that means. In this how-to manual, he helps visitors avoid gobsmacking local blokes with their linguistic ignorance and even retort with some banter of their own. (“You gormless swine!”) OK, enough of these cryptic, quirky terms — this amusing booklet deciphers them. The 100-pager, organized into 20 chapters, each with a different theme (e.g., emotions or clothes), also includes brief lessons in etymology for common phrases Americans have borrowed from Brits, such as feeling “under the weather,” as well as British English translations for American words with different meanings, such as “biscuit” instead of “cookie.” Easy to skim and occasionally sardonic, playful yet informative, “Fancy a Cuppa?” presents a fun learning experience for English speakers who want to improve their vocabulary or for any prospective traveler to Old Blighty (“Great Britain”). Read it — but choose wisely who you insult with its contents. – Michael Lindemann


Cosy: The British Art of Comfort by Laura Weir
Courtesy of Amazon

In “Cosy: The British Art of Comfort,” Laura Weir, the editor-in-chief of the London Evening Standard’s ES Magazine, invites readers to slow down and practice the art of relaxation. In different chapters, she tucks in essays about her idyllic childhood, a Q&A with the founder of a wool brand and her nanny’s cottage pie recipe. She sprinkles in humor. “You don’t take someone upstairs for a tea” is her explanation of why tea is not “saucy.” Weir also encourages helping others feel cozy by, for example, taking a neighbor some soup. The author started writing to “hide away and find solitude” in a depressing political environment, and it became her remedy to “soften the edges of life.” To find peace in a chaotic world, read these 176 pages of casual writings and playful sketches for a mental massage and a little retreat. – Tianshu Hu




The Adventures of Bella & Harry: Let's Visit London by Lisa Manzione
Courtesy of Amazon

“The Adventures of Bella & Harry: Let’s Visit London!” is a delightful primer for parents who wish to educate young children about the historic metropolis. Author Lisa Manzione and illustrator Kristine Lucco’s wide-eyed, painted Chihuahuas, Bella and Harry, begin by separating fiction vs. reality (are there still armored knights in London?) and situate the city on a map of England before starting their tour. The playful pups take on the town via Tube and bus, visiting major sights like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace while teaching kids British cultural differences like “crumpets” and “chips” as they enjoy afternoon tea and dinner. On the final page, a short explainer translates British-isms like “boot” and “lift.” Parents planning a holiday may wish to manage expectations on how much can realistically be seen in a day. Children attempting to copy Bella and Harry’s day will discover that a visit to Tower Bridge and Westminster Abbey in the morning will hardly leave time for a trip to Stonehenge and back for dinner. Still, the guide, originally published in 2011, serves as an excellent introduction for families to read together to whet children’s appetite for an upcoming trip to the British capital. – Catherine Adams


Walking London by Andrew Duncan
Courtesy of Amazon

In “Walking London: 30 Original Walks in and Around London,” author and historian Andrew Duncan tours areas like Westminster, Notting Hill and Chelsea. First published in 1999, this guidebook needs an updateDuncan also recommends walking routes in “Secret London” and “Walking Notorious London.” Each section opens by outlining basics like where the walk starts and finishes, how many miles it is and how long it takes to complete. Then, Duncan gives directions and fun facts about each place. This combination gets repetitive quickly. Still, he tucks in some engaging tidbits, like a mention of how the Rolling Stones played their first gig at the Crawdaddy Club. It’s surprising Duncan hasn’t released an audiobook version, since his prose mimics a human tour guide. This book, along with the author’s “Secret London” and “Walking Notorious London,” should help first-time visitors because of its overview of the city, and it’s a breezy read at 248 pages. – Valenti Govantes


The 500 Hidden Secrets of London by Tom Greig
Courtesy of Amazon

The best underground scenes are usually reserved for a region’s locals. “The 500 Hidden Secrets of London,” Tom Greig’s insider guide, unveils the city’s best sites and supplies the classic tourist with a practical pre-trip reading option. Each chapter dives into a sweeping list of the best restaurants, architecture, shops, museums, gardens, galleries, hotels, activities and nightlife. Readers need no additional research when picking their next adventure in the U.K.’s most populated city (home to nearly 9 million), as each listing is paired with the spot’s full address and contact information. The title’s “hidden secrets” agenda is slightly misleading, since this guide compiles mostly well-known spots in London — such as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, the city’s oldest pub, and the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the popularized digital art and cinema space. Still, each section contains some veiled gems, including boutique antique markets, weekend getaways and a “hidden gardens” section. Greig designed an informed and extensive read, namely through color-coded maps in early pages, each labeled by chapter for easy searching. Along with tourist necessities, like low-cost activities and affordable hotels, Greig includes a useful section on restaurants that cater to a wide variety of tastes, from vegetarian options to international cuisine. Although the guide may fall short on a strict array of under-the-radar spots, it excels in enabling visitors to discover the city’s finest through the perspective of a true local. – Carla McCanna


British fiction


Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
Courtesy of Amazon

In “Innocent Traitor,” Alison Weir’s 2006 debut novel, the prolific British author shares the little-known story of Lady Jane Grey (aka the “Nine Days’ Queen” because of her short reign). Told through the perspectives of Lady Jane, Frances Brandon (her mother) and Queen Catherine Parr (Henry VIII’s last wife), among others, the page turner begins with the 1537 birth of Henry VIII’s grandniece. Born after the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Grey was always much more inclined to read than to lead. But she inherited the throne against her will in 1553 following the death of her cousin, King Edward VIII. Grey was next in line, nominated by the king for the crown over her sisters, because of her Protestant faith and her sisters’ Catholic faith. History buffs will feel like witnesses to a real-life soap opera in this captivating and thrilling novel. Weir wisely highlights Grey’s resilience and intelligence in this compelling tale about the struggles imposed on a talented, tormented teen. – Tara Mobasher


The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Courtesy of Amazon

2004 Man Booker Prize winner “The Line of Beauty” by veteran British author Alan Hollinghurst captures London in the 1980s through the third-person perspective of Nick Guest, a gay, middle-class plus-one to the wealthy Fedden family. Guest’s time at Oxford with Toby Fedden, a friend and long-suppressed crush, grants him access to the charismatic member of parliament Gerald Fedden and the glamorous, yet shallow world of the Tory party. Divided into three sections that span four years, the novel juxtaposes the lower class with affluence, gay with straight and dysfunction with composure through Guest’s precarious attempts to keep his two worlds separate: one in which his identity is tolerated, so long as it is never mentioned, and one in which he dives into clandestine sexual relationships, indulges in cocaine and navigates the developing AIDS epidemic. Brimming with practiced niceties and superficiality, Hollinghurst’s most famous work begs the question, can Guest’s two diametrically opposed lives coexist? For those interested in British politics, high society and gay culture, this 448-page novel is an easy read, and its unraveling secrets keep the pages turning. – Julia Gordon


Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes
Courtesy of Amazon

In “Absolute Beginners,” the late British novelist and journalist Colin MacInnes captures teenage spirit with fearlessness and vulnerability. He follows 18-year-old photographer Blitz Baby — a nickname given to him by his mother after he was born in a bunker during a Blitz bombing — as he navigates love, friendship, betrayal and violence during the summer of 1958 in West London. This coming-of-age tale, published in 1959, is told over four days in June, July, August and in September, when the protagonist turns 19. From conversations about the meaning of life among English youth in dimly lit jazz bars to Blitz Baby helplessly watching the Notting Hill race riots play out, this story immerses readers in the beginning years of London’s mod culture of modern jazz, sleek fashion and rebellion. As an openly gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal, MacInnes finds himself fascinated with other marginalized subcultures such as Black immigrants and teenage revolutionists. He grapples with the feeling of being both an outsider and insider. Through Blitz Baby, he holds up a mirror to his life — and our own. – Channa Steinmetz


Ghosts by Dolly Alderton
Courtesy of Amazon

In her debut novel, “Ghosts,” The Sunday Times advice columnist Dolly Alderton, author of the bestselling memoir “Everything I Know About Love,” skillfully weaves a relatable tale around the pressures of being a single woman in her 30s. Protagonist Nina Dean, a teacher-turned-cookbook author, chases her dream of falling in love and settling down by downloading a dating app and getting into a serious relationship with a tall, charming guy named Max, who she thinks might be the one. Through Dean, Alderton argues that online romance creates a false sense of control over fate and turns love into a never-ending game. She skillfully uses interactions with Dean’s single best friend, an annoying neighbor and her engaged ex to unveil the imperfections of getting married and starting a family. “Ghosts” encourages women to evaluate their platonic and romantic relationships and to accept and appreciate the life they are already living. – Abigail Ali


The London Bookshop Affair by Louise Fein
Courtesy of Goodreads

Novelist Louise Fein explores love, female empowerment and justice in “The London Bookshop Affair.” The historical fiction specialist plunges the reader into 1960s London, where pickle sandwiches and tea are paired with anxiety over the Cuban missile crisis. The main character, Celia Duchesne, lives an unremarkable life — residing with her parents, working at the local bookshop — but dreams of a career at the BBC. Suddenly, when she locks eyes with an American man, Celia needs to figure out how to handle a budding romance and secrets behind World War II. Imagine “Sex and the City,” but in 1960s London. Instead of drinking cosmopolitans in Manhattan, girls discuss nuclear disarmament at the local pub. They’re infatuated with U.S. intelligence workers instead of Wall Street traders. Regardless of the differences, the level of gossip — even on the brink of war — is the same. Both London enthusiasts and history buffs who crave something more engaging than a textbook will delight in the references to real Cold War events and in the brief appearances of famous settings like Portobello Road and Fleet Street. Overall, this enthralling tale is better than a Lifetime movie. – Megan Forrester


These reviews are written by graduate students at Medill. Follow @MedillChicago on X and @medillreports on Instagram to see more student work.