Traveling through Books: Paris

Disclaimer: This is another in an occasional series of posts about being an armchair traveling through the books you read. I have a book blog, too, and this could just as easily be posted there but it’s more about traveling than reading and it fits in better with my series on traveling through the movies.

I’ve been to Paris twice, in 1977 and in 2007. We nearly made it there a few years ago but plans got cancelled. I hope we see the City of Lights again because it’s a marvel to behold. In the meantime, there are always novels that are set in the city and which describe both the famous sights and the little hidden corners that you always hope you will find, too, on your travels. (and sometimes the aspects you hope to avoid!)  Paris has a long history with writers and the arts and was a favourite place for American writers to live and work in between the world wars in the 20th century but the appeal never goes away. There are many, many books set there. Here’s a list of some I’ve read over the past few years that I’ve enjoyed, set in various eras from about the mid 19th century onward.

Paris – Edward Rutherfurd

This is a good foundation book, with the story starting in the mid to late 19th century with some flashbacks to no earlier than  the medieval period, however it may apply to the families in the “present” and leads us through the history of Paris up to well into the 20th century. (Goodreads review here)

Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light – David Downie

Short vignettes of Paris, the people and the life by a travel writer who moved here in the 80s and married a woman who was born in Paris but raised in America. Photos in the book are taken by her.

We’ll Always Have Paris, A Mother/Daughter Memoir – Jennifer Coburn

Four journeys by a mother and her daughter between her daughter’s age of about 9 to 18, two of them in Paris.

The Bones of Paris – Laurie R. King

Paris in the jazz age. Harris Stuyvesant, P. I. He’s looking for a young American woman who’s disappeared but in his quest, he encounters dark and perverted goings on in the clubs and underbelly of the glittering city. Review here.

Murder in the Marais – Cara Black

Number 1 in a series about stylish female private investigator Aimee Leduc. She tries to stick to tech investigations and keeps getting drawn into criminal work. It’s a light, fun series, not too heavy. How can it be when you read scenes like one in this book of her tottering across the rooftops of Paris in heels? Each book centres on a different area of the city.  The plots are kind of predictable but the descriptions of Paris and the neighbourhoods are wonderful. Great for armchair traveling

The Paris Wife – Paula McLean

This is the story of Ernest Hemmingway and his wife, Hadley and it covers not just the time they spent in Paris, which was considerable, but the whole of their relationship, fictionalized, including encounters with other writers of the jazz age including the F. Scott Fitzgeralds. Review here.

The Invisible Bridge – Julie Orringer

Three Jewish brothers from Hungary want to leave and go to university elsewhere. One manages to get to Paris, one eventually to Italy. The story takes place in Paris up to WWII and then shifts to the brothers who have been sent to work for the Nazis in camps. That part is rather dark and upsetting but still good drama. The Parisian part is a good depiction of student life in the city for the late 1930s. Review here.


The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan

Two sisters and their life in the Paris Ballet world of the Belle Epoch, late 1800s Paris. It’s a story of survival in hard times and also features Degas who painted pictures of ballerinas. The book is inspired by one of Degas’ models and also incorporates some background gleaned from headlines of the day in the city.

The Woman in the Fifth – Douglas Kennedy

A university professor runs to Paris to escape a scandal and a failed marriage, hoping to settle in and write a novel. He ends up getting entangled in the not-so-pleasant underbelly of the city. He meets a woman at a party and his life takes a turn. It’s hard to say whether it’s a good or bad one. I wasn’t keen on the twist at the end, though I do think some people would like it. A different side of Paris that you would usually read about.

I haven’t read it, but I have it on my “to be read” list:

A Paris Year: My Day-to-Day Adventures in the Most Romantic City in the World – Janice MacLeod

It looks as it would be a very good “travelogue” style memoir of someone that moved to Paris to live for a year.

Traveling through books: London and the UK

You’ve probably noted my series of posts about movies shot in locations that are great for armchair traveling. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction travel books lately and it put me in mind of several others I’ve read on the same subject, my favourite city, London and of the UK in general. A couple of them are true “travel” type books, and a couple more are more historical facts but equally interesting and one is fiction that describes the  history of the city through the eyes of several families and their descendants. I like that because it describes how various familiar sites and areas of London developed and changed over the centuries. Makes me want to visit those sites on my next visit!

The city of London has changed and grown considerably around St. Paul's Cathedral, and there's no end in sight.

The city of London has changed and grown considerably around St. Paul’s Cathedral, and there’s no end in sight.

Move Along, Please – Mark Mason

This man has undertaken the journey between Land’s End and John O’Groats, the southern and northernmost points of the main island of the U.K. He’s doing it by local busses, not long distance “coach” and thus meanders along the countryside meeting local people who take the bus for work or shopping or school. By avoiding the main motorways where long distance coaches travel, he’s seen more of the “real” everyday Britian. He’s armed with several books written by people who have done this journey in the past by various means and meets up with others along the way who have local knowledge in various stopping points.

Bizarre London – David Long

This is a book of facts about London, the weird, wonderful and little known facts and events. Read about a cross dressing highwayman, a licensed brothel on Whitehall, read about architectural features that tell stores of the past, odd museums, murders, and all sorts of things.

Tales from the Tower of London – Daniel Diehl

A series of stories about the goings on in the Tower of London over the centuries from it’s establishment by William the Conqueror to the 20th century. Mainly it’s about various people that were incarcerated there and includes historical events such as the Gunpowder Plot and the Peasants’ Revolt. Not bad and if you’re interested in the history of London you will probably find it worth a quick read. Not really in depth but easy to read.

London: The Biography – Peter Ackroyd

It did take me quite awhile to read this book but it’s easy to pick up and put down. Each chapter tells about an aspect of the social history of London and it all comes together over centuries to become the city it is today. Crime, poverty, theatre, economics, architecture, neighbourhoods, strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t read like a textbook, it’s quite interesting.

London – Edward Rutherfurd

Rutherfurd writes long involved fictional histories of an area or city starting, usually, with very early civilization up to the present day. The story he’s written about London starts just before the Roman invasion and ends after World War II. He introduces a handful of familys and traces the stories through them and their ancestors over the centuries. It’s life from the every day people’s point of view. The stories get briefer in the more recent century and a half, with the updates from the 20th century past WWI being just touched on. The best bits are the early to medieval and Tudor/Stuart eras. There’s a family tree at the start to keep them all straight though you can’t see it very well if using an ereader.

UK: Icons of England – Bill Bryson

Bryson edits a collection of contributions from other people who write about their favourite bits of England. They aren’t exactly icons in the traditional definition of the word but they do give a broad feeling of different aspects, such as weather, various nature, seaside, and a lot of them are recollections from the writer’s past. The book was originally a coffee table type with photographs and was a fund raiser. I read it as an ebook and it was not bad. Not always interesting but everyone’s taste is different. You would probably get more out of it if you’d lived there.

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is a very good travel writer, lots of dry humour in his observations which has reduced me to weeping giggles often.This was the first of his books I had read and I reread it last year and giggled just as much. He travels around Britain, mainly by public transportation on busses and trains, to towns, villages and cities as well. He’s an American but has lived in the U.K. for quite a number of years. He has the point of view of a non-native and yet is spot on in many of his observations. Thoroughly enjoyable.

These are the books that I’ve read that can give a reader a great look at London and some of the UK. They give more than just dry historical facts or a generic travel guide “things to do and see”, they show you the past and the present in ways you might not think to look for.  Most of them are available as ebooks from your favourite site (Kobo, Kindle etc.) and you library or a second hand bookstore will have many of them as well. Feel free to comment and suggest others I or other readers might enjoy about London and the U.K.

Traveling through books

Brighton Pier, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pier, Brighton, UK

I love to read and I always have. In fact, my whole family were readers. Both parents, my sister and I always had our noses into a book. When I was a teenager, I discovered Harlequin Romances. They were short novels, written to a formula and always had a happy ending. I really liked them because of the storylines but also because they took place in locations all over the world. Even then, I loved to read descriptions of different places and I still do.

Since I am a self-confessed Anglophile, with British and Irish genes, my favourite book locations are anywhere in the U.K. and Ireland, city or village or countryside.  I read books by English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers frequently. It’s even better when I’ve actually been to the location and can pictures some of the areas described. It doesn’t really matter, however. It gives me glimpses of a place I might like to visit sometime, just like seeing movies or television shows filmed in a foreign location does. I even like historical novels that give a good sense of place. Edward Rutherfurd’s books detail the history of a city or location through the eyes of a number of families and there are great descriptions. You really gain an appreciation for how a city developed over time and if and when you do get to visit, you can search out various neighbourhoods and buildings for yourself.

Obviously, I’m not going to list all the books I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed for the locations in addition to the story itself. There are far too many! Through books, I’ve enjoyed visiting such far flung countries as Japan, Russia, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, among others. City “visits” have included Rome, Paris, Moscow, London (of course!), Dublin, New York, Oslo, Cairo and Berlin. I’ve gained a recent interest in some of the crime novelists from Scandinavia in recent years, due to rising popularity after the “Dragon Tattoo” books by Stieg Larsson. In fact, there’s a website devoted to authors from that part of Europe so there will be lots of suggestions and recommendations I will be looking at. Scandinavian Crime Fiction is being added to my Favourites right now! Authors such as Jo Nesbo and Camilla Lackberg give a wonderful feel for the location as well as the story. I’m very impressed by the translation to English too, it seems to really pick up the feel and atmosphere of what the original novel is probably like in its native language.

Another of my favourite authors is Diana Gabaldon. She has written a series of books based on time travel. They’re historic, they’re romantic, they’re really well researched and absolutely amazing. The first in the series is called Outlander and the first few books are based in the Scottish Highlands during the final Jacobite uprising and the years after, the rest are based in North Carolina and the east coast of American in the years leading up to and during the War of Independence. So far! She’s also got another few books that are mysteries with one of the side characters from the main series, the Lord John Grey books.

As for the type of book I like, I can read almost anything if I’m in the mood for it, though favourites include historical fiction, crime novels, general fiction and sometimes a taste of fantasy, autobiography/biography, history (non-fiction),  comedy, romance (but not the “bodice rippers” as a rule), and I do like what might be classed as “women’s” fiction, “chicklit” and the like. I’ve chosen the photo for this post because I’ve recently discovered an author, Peter James, who writes about a detective, Roy Grace, who works and lives in Brighton, England. I’ve been to Brighton for a visit and the first book that I read had some of the action going on inside the Royal Pavillion, which I’ve also visited so could picture clearly. I’ve just picked up a couple more of his books to enjoy.

If you have a book recommendation and if it features great locations, Please do comment!