Not surprisingly I read some books while in England. This trip was a first for me, in that I travelled with my Nook and only brought electronic copies (and downloaded the Nook app for my ipod so I could share the Nook with the other voracious reader in the family). I still don't like reading ebooks as much as a physical book, but for travel it certainly is convenient. It also helps that through our library you can borrow up to 10 books so I borrowed four of the Harry Potter books for the girl critter (who cannot be separated from them for more than a day without getting squirrely) and thus managed to reduce the weight of our baggage by about 25 lbs.
Hild by Nicola Griffith
I know I very recently blathered at some length about how wonderful Hild is, but now I love it even more.
It was a magical experience to reread this and then visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Hild was the first Abbess of Whitby Abbey (though that part of her life will be covered, presumably, in the sequel). It was thrilling to listen to the audio guide for the Abbey and hear about Hild--I completely ignored my family for once and just wandered off on my own to imagine the amazing fictional character that Griffith created merging with the amazing historical figure of the real Hild.
The book also helped my appreciation of much more than the visit to Whitby. The whole time we were in Yorkshire I felt more connected to the natural environment thanks to Griffith's beautiful prose. Whether it was Brian (thank god, not me) driving down the tiny lanes edged by hedgerows packed full of wildflowers, brambles and pheasants, or coming upon a tree in a village that housed vocal rooks, jackdaws and songbirds, or hiking on the moors in the springy heather and bracken, all of it felt heightened and even more special because of this novel.
A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
Why is this book only available in the US as an ebook? Grrrr. I was under the impression that Fly by Night had sold pretty well but apparently not well enough to publish this book in the US. I was happy to buy it as an ebook to bring with me, but I'd really like a hard copy to keep on my shelf and to loan out to other people.
Frances Hardinge makes creativity look effortless--she never over-explains the weird and wonderful worlds she creates. They just are, and soon after being introduced to wines that can alter memories and cheeses that can make you hallucinate (and which occasionally explode so forcefully that they kill people and collapse tunnels) you completely believe in this magical (and dangerous) world. I loved how earnest and flawed and funny and true her 12 year-old main character, Neverfell, was and I'm looking forward to reading this aloud to the girl-critter who has a great appreciation for the weird.
My kids had read one of the books in this series before we left, but they aren't easy to come by in the US. You can get Kindle and Nook ebooks or buy the hard copies from Scholastic's website but our library and local bookshops don't carry them (we used interlibrary loan for the one hard copy we read before our trip). But they are very popular in the UK with the books supplemented by tv and stage shows, online games and even toy tie-ins. They're silly and engaging and (obviously) focus on the sensational aspects of history, but they are a good follow up to the serious stuff and we had plenty of that when we went to actual historical sites.
We bought three of these books at various gift shops and the critters' really loved them. At Whitby Abbey we purchased the general Horrible Histories England book.
After touring the Churchill War Rooms (very cool underground bunker right in Westminster next to St James's Park that was abandoned after WWII right down to the tea mugs on people's desks) we bought the Woeful Second World War book:
My kids also got my mom's memories to supplement the goofier stuff in this book. She was born in London in 1941 during the blitz. While most of her recollections are of post-war austerity-era England, some members of my family have been known to have a spooky recall of early childhood (not me--my sister has it, and so, it appears, does my girl-critter). In my mother's case some of her memories extend back to WWII when her mother cooked over an open coal fire in one house where they lived that didn't have a stove and her father's fingernails fell off from the research he was doing with radioactive materials (which they kept down a well). He was a chemist and they were trying to design a glow-in-the-dark paint that could be seen by a pilot in his cockpit, but wasn't bright enough for an enemy plane to spot if they were flying overhead. Fingernails falling out will get any kids' attention and linked nicely with some of the Horrible Histories episodes.
The boy-critter and I are starting to study Romeo and Juliet together this summer in preparation for high school and any little bit of making Shakespeare accessible helps. We started watching a video of R & J and at one point he paused it, ran out of the room and went and got this book, so that seems like a good sign.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The last book I'm going to mention has nothing to do with England, but it was a wonderful traveling companion. Anthony Doerr follows up his amazing collection of short stories, Memory Wall, with this beautiful novel that follows two children: blind, French Marie-Laure, and orphaned German, Werner. The story alternates their point of view and slowly, over the course of the book, brings them into each other's orbit. The structure of the plot is very clear so I'm not giving anything away to say that their stories merge near the end of the book, at the occupation and destruction of Saint Malo in 1944. There are wonderful supporting characters who are full of complexity and tenderness, even in the most brutal of environments. I sincerely mourned many of them when they left the story. It's a beautiful read, and I'm thinking that maybe an exploration of the coast of Northern France would be a terrific family trip to start dreaming about. If we can pull that off, I'm sure I'll be rereading this book.