Cambridge Reads

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.

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19 thoughts on “Cambridge Reads

  1. Ann – of course! I can’t believe I forgot Rosy and it’s such a good novel. Yes. And thanks for the heads-up on the Stourton. I won’t be putting that on the wish list, then!

    Charlotte – it’s a mystery! I can only think that Oxford is bigger. It’s a city, not a market town dominated by a big university, and for some strange reason this has a marked effect on novelists. But that does seem a silly sort of excuse, so there must be another…

    Anne – I’m so glad to hear that! I really, really must get me a copy. Hugs! xoxo

  2. So is Cambridge an especially crime-ridden city? Or do authors just like the lovely historical scenery and university setting? You’d think there’d be some classic set in Cambridge but Oxford does get a lot of attention, doesn’t it. I liked For the Sake of Elena, too, and to get an actual look at yummy Nathaniel Parker. It’s a pity they cancelled the Lynley series! I have both the Stott and Spring books so must pull them out and read them and I think I’m going to have to find The Night Climbers of Cambridge–that sounds very interesting, although a little too dangerous for my tastes! I’ll pass on making a list of my city as I doubt there’s a single book set here!

  3. this is very fun! You certainly have many more than I would…well, I guess that depends. If I was working with my hometown, I would imagine there wouldn’t be any more than what we writers who come from there have written; Pittsburgh would probably have a lot more options!

  4. Mistress of the Art of Death is another mystery set in Cambridge (medieval Cambridge!). I’m not recommending it because it didn’t like it much, but others I know just love it to pieces, and it did spawn a series.

    There have been tons of books set in the Washington DC area, where I live, but the trick would be finding some that have nothing to do with politics.

  5. There’s a thought – I feel like I’ve only read a handful of novels set in Sydney…A pity, really, and something I must correct. But I would have thought Cambridge would be brimful of classics about itself, so this is all very intriguing. And look at the number of women authors on your list – that strikes me as unusual, too, in a most pleasing way. Some of these sound great. Pity the novel of the night climbers sounds like a wash – I was hoping for something like Tartt’s The Secret History.

  6. A fun list! I don’t think I could put together 15 books about Minneapolis. I could muster a couple, but all the local books seem to be set in St Paul. That’s apparently where all the action used to be with gangsters and everything.

  7. I’m with Doctordi. I would think there are oodles of books written with Cambridge as a setting. At least for Yankees, it is a very “romantical” spot and most of us dream about traveling there.

  8. How strange that Cambridge figures so little in non-mystery books…quite a mystery! I like this meme, and will try to come up with some Swiss books for a similar list, although I think I may end up with a small handful and nowhere near 15. We will see!

  9. That’s interesting–I wonder what makes some cities just ooze novels and others not. You’d think someone looking for a setting would just say hey Cambridge that’s under-represented.

  10. I loved visiting Cambridge a few years ago, so I love reading books that are set there. I’ll have to re-read For the Sake of Elena – read it many years ago and forgot it was in Cambridge. And I’ve been wanting to read Ghostwalk, but even more so now.

    Hearts and Minds is one of my favorite Cambdrigde novels :)

    Thanks for the great recommendations!

  11. Great idea and I’m going to have to try and find at least 10 novels that are set in Cape Town. I think I’ll have to give Ghostwalk a try, or do you think Hearts and Minds or For the sake of Elena would be better-suited to a Cambridge novice like me?

  12. Just to say I have found some more novels: Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, Stephen Fry’s The Liar, E. M. Forster’s Maurice and The Longest Journey, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Frederick Raphael’s Glittering Prizes. Oh and apparently two of the characters in Ian McEwan’s Atonement went to Cambridge. So that’s a few more!

    Danielle – Lol! I don’t know that we have so much of the kind of crime that features in novels. A couple of years ago, one mature student at Lucy Cavendish tried to stab her female companion and we never heard the last of it. Cambridge certainly inspires the thought of crime, although most dons lead exceedingly dull lives in reality! I thought of you when I was making my list and wished I could pick your memory banks – if you can’t put together a list of books set in your area, I will readily believe they don’t exist! :)

    Courtney – you’ve lived in some very novelistic-y places, no? Pittsburg and Michigan before that. I reckon you could put together quite a few interesting reads.

    Teresa – that crime book sort of rings a bell. And woah, yes, Washington would be rich pickings but not perhaps varied ones. Still, it would be quite interesting to see what you could put together.

    Doctordi – how we need a Donna Tartt to come along and fictionalise Cambridge in a literary way – that would be so good! And it IS strange that it’s never happened. If you do think about it, I’d love to know about more books set in Sydney. I’m quite keen to read more Australian literature at present, and only have a few authors on my list.

    Stefanie – ah now, if you have gangsters then you are in a wonderful position to attract the attention of authors! I’m sure I’ve heard that the climate of Minneapolis is quite something, and that might have provoked a novel or two!

    Grad – It’s funny how living inside a place seems to prevent a person from having a view of what it must look like from the outside. I mean, I know my city is beautiful, but it is so very familiar to me. Romantic, eh? Well, I guess so, on a sunny day. And if you ever do visit, promise you’ll let me know.

    Verbivore – I’d love to hear about more Swiss authors, or at least books set in Switzerland. I didn’t make the full 15, and had to cheat a lot with what I did have! But it’s lots of fun to do.

    Lilian – wouldn’t you just? There’s so little, really, compared to other parts of the world. Perhaps Cambridge is just too much like a novel itself to warrant fictional treatment!

    Becca – you are very welcome! Both of those novels you mention are wonderful books and I’d love to know what you make of Ghostwalk.

    Pete – oh now, Cape Town must surely be the home to lots of amazing novels. It depends on your reading mood what you go for here: Ghostwalk is a serious book that weaves science and superstition together and has quite intense and intricate passages about the life of Isaac Newton. Hearts and Minds is fun and entertaining and very redolent of what Cambridge is like now. For the Sake of Elena is classic crime, in the police procedural mode. Go with what feels right to you in the moment.

    Jodie – thank you for that suggestion! I’ve read that book too and enjoyed it very much – and it should certainly go on the list.

  13. I only just stumbled across this post, Litlove. And – having forgiven you for forgetting me – I just have to mention that you’ve omitted the one which for me is the archetypal Cambridge novel, namely C.P. Snow’s ‘The Masters’.

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