For some reason, I am just not in the mood for a long, discursive post today. I did begin one, but it sort of fizzled out – that’s August for you. So instead I started thinking about the meme that the delightful Kate did, in which she came up with 15 books about Toronto, her hometown. I didn’t think I would manage fifteen about Cambridge, because for all its notoriety, it doesn’t seem to feature highly as a literary location. I could come up with several crime novels based here but hardly any straightforward fiction. Here’s my list:
For The Sake of Elena – Elizabeth George
I haven’t read much Elizabeth George but I really enjoyed this one, which I read several years ago lying in bed with a terrible throat after three days of solid admissions interviews. It’s also been televised as part of the BBC adaptations of the Lynley mysteries, and some of the scenes were shot in my college. I walked over the Bridge of Sighs while Nathanial Parker stood there, oh yes I did. Anyway, it’s a very satisfying piece of classic crime fiction.
Nights in White Satin – Michelle Spring
Michelle Spring has written a whole series of crime fiction novels featuring her P.I. Laura Principle. But this was probably the one I liked the most, about a young female student who disappears after a May Ball. I read all Spring’s Cambridge novels and then she went quiet for a while before reappearing with The Night Lawyer, set in America, in the present tense, and nowhere near as good. I can only hope she’ll return to her old form.
Debts of Dishonour – Jill Paton Walsh
Yet more crime, this time featuring a college nurse as the super sleuth, the rather irritatingly competent Imogen Quy. But that’s the only quibble you’ll hear me make about otherwise beautifully plotted and well-written novels. In this one, a wealthy potential patron of Quy’s Cambridge College dies in mysterious circumstances. Do try her: Paton Walsh is a very classy author.
The Matthew Bartholomew Mysteries – Susanna Gregory
I haven’t read this series, although my dad has just lent me his copy of To Kill Or Cure, which he tells me he enjoyed. Set in the 14th century around the fictional Michaelhouse College, Matthew Bartholomew is an academic turned sleuth. I’m expecting lots of period detail, but don’t know whether these feature the grimy version of the Medieval period or the romanticized one. Has anyone read her?
Ghostwalk – Rebecca Stott
At last! A proper novel set in Cambridge that intertwines two time periods, the era of Isaac Newton and the present day in which Lydia Brooke is researching him. I wrote a review of this novel here. This was a very good book, dense and complex and well-written.
The Night Climbers of Cambridge – Whipplesnaith
This is an extraordinary book, dating from the 1930s, that documents the secret society of students who made it their quest to scale the Cambridge colleges in the dead of night, without equipment, and take photographic evidence of their feats. It’s scary, death-wish stuff, on the borderline between courageousness and madness. I believe night climbing goes on still, although I haven’t ever witnessed it myself.
The Night Climbers – Ivo Stourton
And it was such a good concept that inevitably someone wrote a novel about it. I haven’t read this book myself, so can’t pass opinion, but I’d be intrigued to give it a try.
The Last Amateurs; To Hell And Back With the Cambridge Boat Race Crew – Mark de Rond
I gave this to my husband, super-keen rowing enthusiast that he is, last Christmas and he loved it. He actually knows the author from his association with Cambridge rowing, and was aware that he was writing the book. De Rond accompanies the boat race crew through its selection and training process before detailing the drama of the boat race itself. If you like reading about men pushing themselves to the limits of their endurance and suffering the horrors of manic competitiveness, this is for you.
Virgins of Venice – Mary Laven
I’ve now had to resort to picking out books by Cambridge academics. Virgins of Venice is a study of convent life in the 16th and 17th centuries and is full of fascinating details of daily life in the nunneries of Renaissance Italy. It sounds like a pretty good life, actually, with more autonomy and engagement with the real world than you might expect, surrounded by a supportive community that often combined family and friends. A very good non-fiction read.
Pompeii; The Life of a Roman Town – Mary Beard
This isn’t dissimilar to Mary Laven’s book in its perspective, so Cambridge historians have clearly cornered the market in vividly realized recreations of the past. Mary Beard is the academic whose blog is featured in The Times – no chance of syndication for the poor old Reading Room, of course. Still, I will be looking out for a copy of this book on the last days of Pompeii as it’s had marvelous reviews.
The King’s Glass – Carola Hicks
This non-fiction book focuses on the magnificent stained glass windows of King’s College and tells the story of the windows and of the actual kings they depict, chief among them, Henry VII, whose mother, Margaret of Beaufort, founded my college. I like to think of her as a teenage single mother come good, as she gave birth to Henry VI at the age of 13 (and newly-widowed) and unsurprisingly, the birth was nearly the end of both of them. But really that’s a terrible deformation of history, as she was an heiress from a very young age and was briefly the Regent, when Henry VIII was too young to reign. Anyway, I digress. This is another one of those rich-tapestry-of-history books, and certainly worth your time if you like that sort of thing.
And that’s all the Cambridge-associated books I can think of. I’m particularly frustrated that there are so few novels, and do let me know if you’ve come across others I’ve missed. And if you’d like to do the meme too, and come up with 10-15 books about your hometown or region, then consider yourself tagged.