Great Books for Brainy Boys
Do you have a bright boy in your life? Lucky you!
BUT it’s hard to keep a bright boy fed with books. So many MG and YA books have pink covers, or touchy-feely romance, or feature bearded manly-men: my boys just couldn’t relate to these stories.
You know how kids can be fussy eaters? (“I don’t like broccoli/tomatoes/mushrooms?”) They’re exactly the same with books.
But it’s really important that kids learn to love reading. If nothing else, a book is a battery-free boredom-killer. A book can be carried anywhere and shoved under your little darling’s nose the moment he becomes restless.
But books are more than entertainment; they’re education. Books teach without even trying. From stories, kids learn facts, coping strategies and how to see the world through another’s eyes. In today’s techno-focussed society, words are super important; if you’re unable to communicate ideas, its pretty hard to hold down any well-paid job. Today, being brain-fit is more important than being physically-fit.
Here’s a list that might help.
Full disclosure: my boys are in their late teens. In their middle grade years (ages 8 – 10) they were competent, not voracious readers. I had to work real hard to find stories they liked. One son likes character-focussed novels; the other is (still) crazy about science, and for the longest time he’d only read ‘how to’ manuals. (I remember reading him the dishwasher plumbing manual for bed time reading!)
But now they’re both advanced readers, in the top streams at their university/schools and while they still have strong preferences, they’ll read across genres. I compiled this list of books with their help.
I’ve put in links to the Amazon pages of all the titles, so you can read a bit more about them.
Please note: this list is by no means complete. I’ve left out most of the mega hits, like The Hobbit, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, as I’m sure you’re already aware of them. Plus, of course there are plenty of other wonderful stories I’ve left out, or just haven’t discovered yet. This list is mostly speculative fiction (horror, sci-fi and fantasy) as I found my science-focussed son engaged best with this genre.
If you’re looking for further ideas, try Zac Harding’s blog: https://bestfriendsarebooks.com – or ask a librarian
Younger Readers (8 – 10)
Animorphs – KA Applegate
Goosebumps – R. L. Stine
- These are science-fiction/horror-lite series, and both have an enormous number of titles. One son insisted on reading them in order, which I found real stressful, because do you think the library had them all available at the right time?
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar – Roald Dahl
“What keeps the elevator up?” asked Charlie.
“Skyhooks, of course,” said Mr Willy Wonka.
When Our Jack Went to War – Sandy McKay.
Based on the true story of Sandy’s great-uncle in WW1. This book is really good for kids with shorter attention spans, as it’s interspersed with cuttings from newspapers, so the formatting helps retain the interest.
The Prankster and the Ghost – R. L. Stedman
This is my book, so I guess this could be shameless self-promotion, but I wrote this with my kids in mind. The idea came about from my son’s school camp: within the first hour, one kid had their arm run over by the bus, another had a trip to ED, and my son was convinced the camp was haunted.
The Horse and His Boy – C. S. Lewis
The story of Shasta, runaway slave and his talking horse. A stand-alone adventure set in the Narnia world, this was the only one in the series my kids warmed to, but they both loved it.
Middle Grade (10 – 13)
Horowitz Horror – Anthony Horowitz
These are really good horror stories for kids, but be aware that they may induce delicious terror in the child-reader. So I don’t recommend these for binge- or late-night reading (unless you want to be woken by a kid with nightmares). Horowitz also wrote the Alex Rider series for older kids, about a spy academy for teens. TBH my kids didn’t really relate to the Rider series, “they’re too predictable”, but others may enjoy.
The Cherub Series – Robert Muchamore
Another series about teen spies for MG – YA readers. These stories are the ultimate in formulaic, binge-reading, so once a kid is hooked they’ll be gagging for the next in series. One of my sons hated these books, but the other devoured them, so again, worth a try. There are heaps of titles in this series – definitely a bonus when you’ve got a holiday planned. Just be aware that Muchamore writes about real-life issues, like trafficking. Younger children may not be ready for this type of content, so I do suggest caution.
The City of Ember (3 book series) – Jeanne DuPrau
A story about a civilisation surviving underground. This was made into a neat little movie, starring Bill Murray and Tim Robbins, and is a well-written exciting science-fiction dystopia for younger readers.
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
An absolute, must-read classic for intelligent MG and YA readers: time travel, space travel, a brain-box kid and his older sister. This is part of a series, but you don’t need to have the entire series to enjoy this outstanding adventure.
When You Reach Me – Rebecca Stead
An award-winning adventure about time travel. Miranda receives anonymous letters that seem to be able to predict the future. This story is full of puzzles and plot twists. It’s based on an idea in A Wrinkle in Time, so its good to read them together.
Cosmic – Frank Cottrell-Boyce.
The story of an unusually tall 12-year-old who’s mistaken for an adult, and how he pranks his way into becoming an astronaut. This isn’t a simplistic read, but if you’ve a kid with a good attention span, they’ll love this story. Cosmic (and Cottrell-Boyce’s other works) make very good audio books, great for long car journeys.
Johnny Maxwell Series – Terry Pratchett
More information in this blog post.
Under the Mountain – Maurice Gee
See this blog post here. Fantastic story, disappointing movie.
Chrestomanci Series – Diana Wynne Jones.
This was the series that got me hooked on reading, when I was only 9! My favourite in the series is still Charmed Life, about orphan Cat and the mysterious enchanter Chrestomanci, but Witch Week is also great, and even now I laugh out loud when I read it. This series introduces the concept of multiple worlds and discusses causality, so it’s a thought-provoking read for science-fiends.
Older Readers (13 +)
I think my kids enjoyed the books here precisely because they are NOT written for kids – most were written before YA was a ‘proper’ genre.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Great fun to read aloud and surprisingly accessible; we laughed our way through this book.
The Invisible Man – HG Wells
A classic, and still a fantastic story. A man walks into a bar, his face wrapped in bandages …
The Day of The Triffids – John Wyndham
Wyndham’s novels are written in a rather dry, reportage style, which my son loved. If your child enjoyed the Triffids, they’ll be happy, because there are others to try: The Kraken Wakes, Chocky, The Midwich Cuckoos. (My son also loved The Trouble With Lichen, but I couldn’t stand it!)
The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
I know, right? But my 13 year old totally loved this book, the idea of the puzzles and the fast-paced story-telling kept him hooked.
The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater
My boys weren’t massively into this series, but it will certainly appeal to some boy readers. More info in this blog post here.
The Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov
My son devoured this series when he was 14, and it’s still one of his favourites. The combination of science and world-building in Asimov’s books makes these books deeply appealing to young people. Apologies to all Asimov fans, but I find reading his books as exciting as watching paint dry. The ideas are great, but it’s hard work to reach them (plus he’s as sexist as hell), so I wouldn’t expose a teen to Foundation until he or she is a truly competent reader.
And then …
Well, once a kid is says he’s enjoying Asimov, they’re on their own, and good luck keeping up with them!
photographs from pixabay and deposit photos – used under license
Have you seen Ready Player One?
In case you’ve not watched it, nor read the book, here’s a quick summary: 16-year-old poverty-stricken Wade Watts is searching for a prize hidden inside the Oasis, the world’s online forum/trading place/gaming place/school venue. It’s where most people spend their days, hidden behind virtual headsets.
The year is 2040; the Oasis’s reclusive developer, James Halliday, has just died, leaving his fortune and control of the Oasis to the person who can find the three keys that unlock the prize, or ‘easter egg’, hidden within the Oasis. But an evil corporation is also seeking the egg. Can Wade save the Oasis (and the world) before it’s too late?
The story takes place in both the virtual and the real, and through the story Wade meets the fetching Art3mis (pronounced Artemis, how clever), faces his fears, learns about friendship and loyalty.
Watching the movie felt weirdly familiar, partly because the story references the 80s like they were the coolest time ever, and partly because I’ve read a heck of a lot of books similar to RP1.
There ain’t nothing like Spielberg for storytelling, plus you gotta love the meta-ness of Spielberg making a nostalgia-fest of the 80s when he was responsible for much of its pop-culture. And of course, the special effects are great. There’s a few logistical/plot hole questions but hey, it’s a movie, right?
However, the book troubles me. Ready Player One was a best seller, but I have no idea why. I thought it was slow, badly written and full of formulaic tropes. But the thing that annoyed me the most was that there are way, way better books around, but they’re not as famous, and so have gradually dwindled into undeserved obscurity.
If you loved Ready Player One – great! I’m glad it worked for you. Not every book speaks to every reader; that’s cool.
But if you enjoyed RP1, then you’re in luck, because the world is full of books that are EVEN BETTER. Try these stories below. They’re all science fiction, dealing with the intersection between the virtual the real (also known as cyberpunk) but I think they’re more innovative, creative and way more entertaining.
Are you ready?
Only You Can Save Mankind – Terry Pratchett
Johnny Maxwell has a new video game – defeat the alien ScreeWee. But if the ScreeWee refuse to fight? Worse, what if they surrender? Then the aliens disappear from the game, only to begin invading his dreams. With the help of another player (handle “Sigourney”), Johnny must save the world, save the ScreeWee and work out what is real, and what is not.
The story is hilarious; my personal favourite is Johnny’s friend Wobbler, who creates a game called “Journey to Alpha Centauri” which has to be played in real time, thus taking 3000 years to complete.
Johnny and his friends star in two later novels: Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. In all three stories, Pratchett deals with real-life issues, but always with his trademark humor.
The Johnny stories were some of Pratchett’s favourite works, but they never sold as well as his Disc World series.
I’ve really enjoyed exploring them again with my kids; although the tech references are dated, the ideas are still interesting, and Pratchett’s characters are vivid and exciting. Tip: get the audiobooks. They’re a lot of fun for car journeys, especially the voices of the ScreeWee. Appropriate for ages 9 and up.
Find Only You Can Save Mankind on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2rx1GF9
Body of Glass – Marge Piercy. (Also published as He, She and It).
Published in 1991, Body of Glass was one of the first novels to explore characters shifting between the physical to the virtual worlds, and was awarded the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1993.
Shira, an expert in cyber socialization, works for Y-S, a multi. She lives under a glass dome, safe from the environmental pollution that’s killed much of North America. But when her ex-husband wins custody of her son, she decides its time to return to her home town Tikva, and begins working on a new project: the cyborg Yod. As she learns to live without her son, she realises that Tikva is under attack, and Yod is to be its defender.
The book cuts between the past and the present, and deals with gender identity, sexualisation and race. It’s scarily prescient, with topics like: what is a cyborg? Where does humanity begin and end?
The sex scenes are reasonably descriptive, so I wouldn’t recommend this for early YAs but it’s suitable for late teens, and definitely recommended for girls – its unusual to see women cast in starring roles in sci-fi. It’s set in a Jewish community, and I totally enjoyed the opportunity to read and learn about this culture.
Piercy also wrote Woman on the Edge of Time, an unnervingly accurate novel about the future.
Find He, She and It on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2rx1shh
Neuromancer – William Gibson
Neuromancer won the Nebula Award, the Philip K Dick Award and the Hugo Award in 1984. Case, a washed up computer hacker, is hired to conduct a hit on a powerful artificial intelligence. He’s assisted by razor girl Molly Millions, an augmented street samurai with mirror-eyes. Together they discover why Case has been hired, and the identity of who it was who hired him. The story ends with the world changing, as a new AI is born.
Neuromancer birthed the terms ‘Matrix’, ‘hacker’, ‘cyberspace’, and is at least partially credited with having spawned the internet as we know it. Gibson himself says this isn’t true; that he saw the trends emerging and ran with them. Whatever the truth to the tale, there’s no doubt that Neuromancer both reflected and shaped reality.
Although the book isn’t as good as, I think, Gibson’s more recent works, it’s still an amazing, sometimes puzzling read. It’s suitable for older readers, especially teens who love tech. The language is dense and sometimes hard to follow, so better for competent readers.
Incidentally, if you like the concept of Neuromancer but find the actual story too complex, try Burning Chrome, Gibson’s first story collection, published in 1981. It’s a little easier to read, but still has Molly Millions, dancing in black leather with her silver-mirror eyes.
Find Neuromancer on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2rzx7ym
Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Stephenson works part-time for Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos, as his ‘chief futurist’, so he’s uniquely placed to both dream and implement the future.
Snow Crash, released in 1992, is one of his earlier works. It’s a racy, exciting ride with a page-turning, complex plot and intriguing characters.
Our hero is Hiro Protagonist, a part-time pizza delivery boy for the Mafia, part-time builder of the Metaverse, an emerging cyberspace landscape. Hiro is rescued from pizza-delivery death by Y. T., a young skateboard Kourier. Y.T. (“don’t call me ‘Whitey’, I’m Y.T.”) and Hiro embark on a quest to find the creator of Snow Death, a computer virus that threatens to destroy the Metaverse, before it infects the real world.
Snow Crash does contain some info dumps, in the form of the Librarian (oh, how Ready Player One), but the actual story is so exciting that its easy to forgive this small sin. It’s a great read for smart older teens and adults.
I heard that Snow Crash is being made into a TV series by Amazon (of course)! If so, it will be amazing. Oh, and if you enjoyed Snow Crash, you’re in luck, because Stephenson is a prolific writer of very fat books, so you’ll be happily occupied for weeks!
Find Snow Crash on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2rzYLvd
Love American Gods? Here’s 6 Books (plus TV) To Try
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, was published in 2001, and quickly achieved cult status, winning the Hugo, Nebula, Locus Award and Bram Stoker Awards. For a fantasy writer, this is like winning the Grand Slam – actually, it’s harder!
American Gods was so popular that a remake was published in 2011 in an edition called ‘the author’s preferred text edition’. Kind of like a director’s cut version, perhaps?
There have also been audiobook editions, collector’s editions and most recently a TV production. So American Gods is one of those rarities among novels: it’s both good and popular!
Yet despite American Gods’ incredible pedigree, I only managed to read it last year. I couldn’t put it down, and so, to my husband’s irritation, I insisted on taking a book the size of a brick on holiday.
For those of you who haven’t read American Gods (and please, do read it), here’s a brief summary:
Summary of American Gods
Shadow, a small-time criminal, has just reached the end of his prison sentence. He’s about to be released when his wife, Laura, whom he loves dearly, is killed in a car crash, and his world collapses. There follows a job offer from the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, an encounter with Mad Sweeney, and the semi-resurrection of Laura. Oh, and a cascade of gods, both ancient and modern: Egyptian, Russian, Norse, media, celebrity and technology.
American Gods is a bleakly humorous tale, sliding between fantasy, horror and social commentary, and the writing is Gaiman at his best; the tone changes effortlessly from dark to light and is both erudite and (when necessary) foolish. Gaiman is truly a master of the craft.
And when I reached the end, and let out a great sigh of regret, for reaching the end of a book you truly love is both satisfying and sad, I thought: you know, there’s something about this story that is terribly familiar.
And then I read the afterword.
So here’s 5 books that I’m almost positive Gaiman was influenced by when writing his masterpiece, and if he wasn’t, he should have been.
The Eight Days of Luke – by Diana Wynne Jones
In the afterword to American Gods, Gaiman reveals that Wynne Jones helped him with a plot issue. The Eight Days of Luke is a tale of Loki, the mischief-maker Norse god. Gaiman himself credits this as having an influence ‘like first cousins or something.’ However, I think there’s another of Wynne Jones’ books that’s also made its way into American Gods …
The Homeward Bounders – by Diana Wynne Jones
This is possibly the bleakest of Wynne Jones books, and its tone is similar to American Gods, in that although the ending is satisfying, it’s not happy. It’s happy-ish. The Homeward Bounders is the story of Jamie, an inquisitive London urchin who accidentally spies on Them, demonic creatures that war-game with worlds. Them throw him out onto the bounds, where, like the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman, he’s doomed to travel ever onwards. Unless he can find Home, where he can return to play. Wandering the boundaries of the worlds, Jamie meets other bounders, and together, they learn they may be able to change the rules of play. Although this is a book for kids aged 9+, it’s a great read even for adults, and if you’re wanting to introduce your own kids to fantasy, The Homeward Bounders is a great place to start.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul – by Douglas Adams
This is the second in the Dirk Gently series. Written by the creator of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the story follows the eccentric Dirk Gently, a holistic detective who believes that everything is interconnected – even a potato, a scythe-wielding monster, an explosion at Heathrow Airport, the contents of his fridge and Thor, God of Thunder. Unhappily for Gently, it turns out he’s absolutely right. This is a funny, funny read and like American Gods, considers what happens to gods when they have no more followers.
Small Gods – by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated to write the fantastic Good Omens, and Gaiman acknowledges Pratchett’s help out of a plot hole in American Gods, so I think it’s quite likely Small Gods (first published in 1992) made a contribution to American Gods. Plus, of course, there’s the titles! In Small Gods, the Great God Om unexpectedly manifests as a tortoise, and being a tortoise, has no godly powers. Worse still, only one boy, Brutha, can hear his voice, and Brutha does not believe he can be Om. Like many discworld adventures, Small Gods deals lightly with big topics: religion, freedom of belief and religious institutions.
Midnight’s Children – by Salman Rushdie
This stunning novel won the Booker Prize in 1981, and really marked the beginning of Rushdie’s pre-fatwa career. To be honest, inserting this novel into this list is a long stretch. However, I wanted to mention Rushdie because apart from Gaiman, I’ve not read any other writer with such facility for language. Rushdie is able to transform from starkly energetic horror to contemplative calm, and although his stories are bleak, they are cathartic. Unlike Gaiman, Rushdie isn’t seen as a fantasy writer, but Midnight’s Children is definitely a fantastical tale. (Personally, I don’t find Midnight’s Children as engaging as American Gods, but it’s still a worthwhile read.)
In Midnight’s Children, Saleem, a telepathic with an extraordinarily large nose, is born at midnight on the day of India’s independence with unique gifts, and believes he has unique responsibilities to the new-born state.
Full disclosure: I’ve not read this graphic novel series, but I’m really keen to. I’ll withhold my comments until that time, but just to note that Wikipedia indicates that many side characters in American Gods, such as Bast, were first born in The Sandman.
Post Script: Television Shows
If you’re keen on stories about Norse Gods living in modern times, try The Almighty Johnsons. In The Almighty Johnsons, the Norse pantheon have relocated to New Zealand, but don’t have their full powers, so Axl, a student (and also a reincarnation of Odin), needs to find his mate, Frigg. But unfortunately, Frigg doesn’t want to be found.
This TV show was written after American Gods, so probably owes something to Gaiman, but the tone is quite different; The Almighty Johnsons contains a whole lot more sex, and is a great deal funnier. It’s less fantastical in tone, too, but has been picked up by Syfy for release in the US.
4 Books Like Pride and Prejudice —
If you love all things period romance, here’s 4 books I guarantee you’ll love.
But first, That Shirt…
Emma is the second-best Jane Austen novel after Pride and Prejudice. Well, that’s what I think!
Like P&P, Emma abounds in eccentric individuals. And like Austen’s other work, there’s character transformation.
Emma, a rich and beautiful woman, is certain she should be a wonderful matchmaker — why, she knows which man deserves which woman, better even than the individuals themselves…
Like Pride and Prejudice, Emma is very funny and with a surprisingly contemporary tone. Personally, I don’t find it quite as fast-paced as P&P, but it’s still an enjoyable read.
Emma has been made into television shows, movies, stage plays.
Here’s one of my favourite clips from Gwyeneth Paltrow’s version.
Charlotte Bronte’s gothic novel about a governess who falls in love with her charge’s father is considerably darker than Austen’s romances.
Jane Eyre is a story of love and loss; of deceit and poverty. I love the settings of Jane Eyre, and Mr Rochester has, I think, more depth than many of Austen’s characters.
BUT — there’s not a whole heap of fun in this book.
However, if you like period romances with a gothic twist you must read Jane Eyre. In this work Bronte created a genre that we’re still enjoying today. From Twilight to Feverborn, readers love the attraction of the dark.
The movie trailer below shows why.
Three Men in A Boat is SUCH a good book! Like Pride and Prejudice, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is laugh-out-loud funny, and like P&P, it’s true to its era.
Unlike P&P, it’s not a romance. Three Men in a Boat is a travel book, quite possibly the first of its kind! It reads a little like Bill Bryson meets Queen Victoria.
Three Men in A Boat tells the tale of three (slightly hypochondriac) men who feel they need a holiday. So they take a week to travel from London to Oxford by rowing upstream along the Thames.
The story meanders like the river, moving from anecdote to anecdote, and as long as you’re happy to not journey in a straight line, it’s highly enjoyable. Published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat was a hit almost as soon as it hit the stores, and has retained all its charm.
I’ve actually rowed part of the portion in the book, and the descriptions are still accurate. Not all of the pubs remain, alas :).
It’s been made into TV, movies and has ripped off by plenty of comedians and writers. Watch this clip!
4. Arabella by Georgette Heyer
If you haven’t yet discovered Georgette Heyer, you’re in for a treat! Heyer specialised in regency romances and despite being written in the 1950s, her books feel true to period.
Like Austen, Heyer is very funny and like Austen, she manages to move between third-person limited point of view and third-person omniscient effortlessly. Note to non-writers: this is very hard to do.
Arabella has the classic prejudice of a heroine to the hero; and the hero in Arabella, is extremely proud, but the story is faster-paced than Austen’s.
A brief summary: Arabella is to journey to London to stay with her godmother. The oldest of eight children, from a penniless-but-respectable family, she knows it is her duty to marry well. Unfortunately, she convinces the monde that she is an heiress…
Heyer’s books are superbly written. They’ve been continuously in print since their first edition, and their popularity remains high. However, they’ve never been turned into television or movie, which is a real shame, and Heyer herself never appeared to gain recognition within the literary community.
But if you love P&P, Arabella is the ONE book in this list you must try. And once you read it, you’ll be hooked for life!
But wait – there’s more!
If you’re still short of reading material here’s some other works that are similar to P&P. These books were either written in the same period as Austen, or their tone is similar. The links here lead to the Amazon store, so you can check the description.
Wuthering Heights – by Emily Bronte
My Cousin Rachel – by Daphne Du Maurier
The Grand Sophy – by Georgette Heyer
You could also check out the Silver Petticoat Review; a blog for all things romantic!
Over to you – any books you’d recommend?
Just after writing this post, the Bank of England released a new 10 pound bank note. The bank note features Jane Austen, along with a quote from Pride and Prejudice!
“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading”
Ironically, this line is spoken by Caroline Bingley — a character who in Pride and Prejudice who is far more interested in Mr Darcy than books.
This bank note makes Jane Austen to be the only woman (apart from the Queen) to be depicted on a UK bank note.
Do you love period dramas that are absolutely BRIMMING over with romance?
If you love Downton Abbey: Here’s some books you’re guaranteed to love!
I know, I’ve talked about this book before. For good reason: it’s gorgeous.
A Room With a View is my favourite E. M. Forster work. The book is about Lucy, an upper-middle class young woman embarking on her first trip to Italy. Lucy is disappointed when she fails to gain a room with a view in the pensione; a widower with a son offers her his room — and thus her adventure begins.
The story about tolerance and love, and hence ‘A Room With A View’ is also about how the character’s own views change. A Room With a View is a really easy read, but don’t be fooled by how easy a read it is; it took Forster nearly ten years to construct this small masterpiece. As a writer, I don’t find this at all strange. Simplicity is hard.
Why is it a great read? Partly because of Lucy’s transformation, but mostly because of the characters: Mr Beebe, the parson; Freddy, Lucy’s “unpromising” brother and Charlotte Bartlett, Lucy’s cousin.
The 1985 movie by Marchant-Ivory won 3 Oscars and is fabulous viewing, particularly Maggie Smith, who gives Charlotte Bartlett more depth than even Forster managed. The score, featuring Kiri te Kanawa, is simply stunning.
Forster later wrote a satirical piece, called “A View Without A Room” as a postscript to this work.
Like Downton Abbey, The Remains of the Day is set in a large country house in the years before World War Two, where a butler, Mr Stevens, and housekeeper, Miss Kenton, work together to ensure the comfort of Lord Darlington.
Mr Stevens is reluctant to admit his feelings for Miss Kenton and buries himself in his work of service. Only later does Stevens realise that perhaps this loyalty was misplaced; perhaps his days have passed, as have the days of the country houses.
The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker, but don’t let that put you off (!) — it’s a lovely read, especially if you like slower-paced period dramas.
The novel was made into a brilliant movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and their nuanced performances make the story come alive. I watched the movie first — its one of those rare creations that almost (not quite, but almost) better than the movie!
Brideshead Revisited is a tale of love: the love of the protagonist, Charles Ryder, for an upper class family, the Fyltes. He falls in love with the oldest son, Sebastian, but then there’s the sister, Julia … but mostly, the house Brideshead, is what he loves.
Brideshead Revisited is told from the perspective of Charles, beginning when he’s billeted at Brideshead as a soldier in WW2, so the novel is gripped by a sense of nostalgia and loss. The story deals with the homosexuality of Sebastian, what it’s like to be a Catholic in an Anglican society (the Fyltes are Catholic), but mostly it’s about the end of a privileged lifestyle.
Personally, Brideshead Revisited is my least favourite of these novels, although it’s probably the best retelling of the era, and possibly the most autobiographical. It was made into a television series in the 1970s. I remember this series as being staggeringly popular, but to me it seemed inordinately long!
A series by P. G. Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster novels feature the all-knowing valet Jeeves and his inept-but-harmless upper-class employer, Bertie Wooster. Wooster narrates over ten novels in a charmingly ignorant fashion, using pre-war slang; language that fits beautifully in the early Downton Abbey series.
The Jeeves novels are basically situational comedy. Wooster tumbles from complicated scrape to complicated scrape, requiring rescuing by Jeeves.
Jeeves and Wooster were incredibly popular characters, and the series influenced a number of British comedy writers: you can see aspects of Wodehouse in Blackadder and Monty Python, and Bertie Wooster and the sapient Jeeves have starred in a number of television shows.
(If you watch this clip you’ll see Downton Abbey in the background!)
I have to confess: I’ve not read Love in a Cold Climate yet, despite it being on my TBR pile for ages!
Written in 1949 by Nancy Mitford, the story narrates the adventures of Polly Hampton and her love for her paedophilic uncle (nicknamed “Boy”). The story was a huge best seller and is still popular today.
Love in a Cold Climate takes place in similar settings and characters to Downton Abbey, and as Mitford moved in these circles (she was a contemporary and friend of Evelyn Waugh) the settings are authentic.
Mitford’s story is as interesting as her fictional romances; one of the notorious Mitford sisters, she was probably the least political of the set. The Times described them as: “Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist and Deborah the Duchess.”
Love in a Cold Climate (I wonder if its title was the reason for Love in a Time of Cholera) was made into a number of mini series. Here’s a clip of the 1982 version, staring a very young-looking Judi Dench.
Unlike the other books in this blog post, The Larnachs isn’t set in England; the events in this story take place very close to my house – in Dunedin, New Zealand.
I’ve included The Larnachs in this list as the setting is similar in many ways to Downton Abbey, and there are similar themes of changing morality, wealth, privilege and class. However, unlike Downton, the events in this story actually happened.
William Larnach, a self-made millionaire, was a politician in colonial New Zealand. After the death of his first two wives he married Constance de Bathe Brandon, daughter of a well-to-do aristocratic family. William and Constance moved to Larnach’s new-built castle near Dunedin, where Constance met and fell in love with William’s oldest son, Dougie.
This is a sensitively-told story of a doomed love triangle. Marshall is a very empathetic writer, and sets the scene of this troubled family with compassion.
The story ends tragically, but the beautiful castle Larnach built has survived.
You can visit it today – we do, frequently. There’s supposed to be a ghost there, but we’ve never seen it!
I hope you enjoyed this list.
I know it’s not exhaustive; there’s plenty of other wonderful stories out there. Feel free to recommend your favourites in the comments!