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books travel book house summertown oxford england

(Found at The Book House in Summertown, Oxford)

The Rosie Effect, Graeme Simsion
This sequel to The Rosie Project (which I loved) finds Don Tillman, ultra-logical genetics researcher, and his wife Rosie living in New York. When Rosie unexpectedly gets pregnant, chaos ensues as Don struggles to figure out how to support her. Hilarious, poignant and moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 30).

Emily Climbs, L.M. Montgomery
Emily Byrd Starr goes to high school in Shrewsbury, boarding with sniffy Aunt Ruth and working hard at her craft as a writer. I love watching Emily grow into herself, and I love the camaraderie with her three best friends. (And I wish I had a teacher-critic-friend like Mr. Carpenter.)

Emily’s Quest, L.M. Montgomery
Emily settles down to the serious work of writing – and nearly loses true love not once, but twice. Bittersweet and often solemn, but still lovely and haunting. (And she gets her double happy ending after all.)

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, James Runcie
A young priest at Grantchester (a village outside Cambridge) finds himself solving various mysteries alongside his police inspector friend. Leisurely, erudite and well plotted. First in a series. Found at Blackwells in Oxford.

Silas Marner, George Eliot
When the titular character, a solitary weaver, is robbed of his hoard of gold, he believes life isn’t worth living – until an abandoned child shows up on his doorstep. A sweet little story (and my first Eliot), but I didn’t love it.

One Evening in Paris, Nicolas Barreau
The owner of a Paris art house cinema falls in love with a mysterious woman – but she disappears after a Hollywood director begins filming his new movie at the cinema. Quirky and sweet, but predictable. Would be better as a movie.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is expecting a quiet Christmas at the titular house. But when you live in a smugglers’ hotel, unexpected guests have a habit of turning up. A smart, fun, mysterious middle-grade novel, with a great adventurer’s yarn related to the house. Found at McNally Jackson in NYC.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

Oxford: long walks

Oxford is a walking city, its ancient narrow streets full of unexpected turns and quiet corners, the gates of the colleges offering a tempting peek into their vine-hung secret gardens.

lincoln college oxford quad vines

The honey-colored stone gives the whole city a quiet glow, and the “dreaming spires” of Matthew Arnold’s poem still dream.

catte street oxford

high street magdalen tower oxford

Both by necessity and by choice, I’ve spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Oxford. You could set me down in almost any intersection, and I’d know exactly where I was and how to get home. And after many rambles through the gardens of various colleges, I know every one of the dreaming spires by name.

lincoln college tower oxford

I spent hours walking the streets of Oxford on this visit – with my housemates, with Jacque, with Laura, with Megan, and alone. I stopped often to snap photos, poke into bookshops or other shops, or simply look around.

oxford wall blue sky

My feet were tired by the end of the week, but my heart was full. There’s nothing like a good long walk for pleasure and perspective, and I loved every one of my strolls down (and views of) these familiar streets.

dreaming spires oxford england

Oxford: long talks

As I noted recently, going back to Oxford always means reconnecting with a few dear friends who live there. I had a splendid afternoon with my housemates, but it was only one part of a week spent soaking in community.

After my rapturous walk home on the morning I arrived, I was greeted by my hostess – Jacque, a college friend who has lived in Oxford for years now. The first thing she said was, “Cup of tea?” Which is code for, “I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a long chat.”

katie jacque oxford

We had plenty of long chats that week – sitting at her kitchen table, relaxing in her spacious living room, walking to the park or the coffee shop, meandering around City Centre. Many of our chats involved, or were in the presence of, her sweet wee baby, Matilda.

matilda

Matilda isn’t much for talking yet, but she gurgles and coos with the best of them. And she didn’t seem to mind being hauled all around Oxford (and up to London and back), as Jacque and I took her everywhere with us.

On Friday, Megan, another college friend, came up to spend the weekend in Oxford.

katie megan house 9 oxford

Megan recently moved to the south coast of England, and after several exciting but overwhelming weeks of transition, she was thrilled to be back in Oxford among familiar faces. And we were thrilled to have her.

She and I shared a room for two nights and stayed up far too late talking of a hundred things – work and family and life abroad, transition and culture shock and faith. We walked downtown on Sunday morning, via our favorite sandwich shop, and we stood in the nave of the church we both call home, and sang our hearts out together.

That Monday, I walked back down the Cowley Road to a building just around the corner from my old house, to spend the evening with Lizzie in her charming fourth-floor flat.

lizzie living room oxford

When we were housemates, Lizzie and I would frequently stay up late talking. Long after Jo and Grace (those early risers) had gone to bed, and we’d given up studying for the evening, we could be found curled up on her bed or mine, putting the world to rights over cups of tea or cocoa. We laughed and cried and wrestled with matters of school and career and the heart; we told secrets, told jokes, and forged a deep bond in those late-night hours. And on this evening, Lizzie made a pot of hearty pasta and a nectarine crumble, and we ate and giggled and talked for hours. Just like old times.

lizzie river oxford

My last full day in Oxford was chock-full of community, beginning with the lovely Laura.

katie laura oxford

Laura teaches at my alma mater in West Texas, and she and her family are spending this fall in Oxford while she teaches in their study abroad program. They were away in Scotland when I arrived, but came back midway through my trip, and on Tuesday, she and I had a delightful day out together.

radcliffe camera st mary's tower oxford

We climbed St Mary’s church tower for some of my favorite views in the world (above), ate lunch at Pieminister in the Covered Market, and visited a few of my favorite shops, including Ben’s Cookies.

bens cookies oxford covered market

We also crammed in as much catching-up as we could – books, faith, travel, family, work, Oxford itself. We see one another rarely since I moved to Boston, and this bonus time together was a treat.

Later than afternoon, Jacque and I had tea in the back garden – she even broke out the posh tea from Paris.

jacque matilda

Laura’s younger daughter, Molly, joined us for tea – though after trying the fancy tea we were drinking, she informed us seriously that she really prefers Earl Grey. (And ran next door to fetch her own teabag.)

tea set hands garden

That evening, I took a walk along the canal, out past the train station, to an old stone house where I’m always welcome.

simon preaching st aldates

My friend Simon (pictured above), one of the ministers at my beloved St Aldates, and his wife Tiffany welcomed me with hugs. We sat around the table with their teenage sons, eating pasta carbonara and catching up on our lives. After dinner, Tiffany served raspberry crumble topped with crushed almonds, and Simon and I sat in the living room and talked for hours.

I always wish I could record these conversations, capture their essence as well as the actual words exchanged – so many wise, loving and profound remarks come out of these hours among friends. But I have to be content with scribbling down a few of the most memorable words in my journal, and basking in the afterglow – the warm, nourished feeling that comes from spending time with people I love.

More (more!) Oxford photos and stories to come.

katie lizzie rowing

I’ve said it before: there are always a hundred reasons I want to go back to Oxford. The city itself is an old friend: the winding streets, honey-colored stone and lush green parks are all dear and familiar. But I also have a half-dozen friends who live in Oxford, and I’d planned to spend an afternoon with my former housemate, Lizzie. (That’s her above.)

We met up on the colorful Cowley Road, near the little chocolate-box house we once shared with two other girls: a small, spare semi-detached with a blue door, tucked into a quiet close. Lizzie, knowing my penchant for nostalgia, suggested we go and say hello.

cowley house blue door

We stood in the middle of the close, marveling at how big the trees have grown and trying to guess who lives there now (we suspect another group of students). As I went to snap a photo, Lizzie said something and I turned around – to see Jo and Grace, our other housemates, standing behind me with identical grins on their faces.

housemates radcliffe square

I was flabbergasted. Stunned. Delighted. I hadn’t told Jo and Grace I was coming to the UK, knowing I wouldn’t be able to go see them while I was there – but Lizzie, clever girl, had secretly organized a surprise reunion. The three of them had been scheming for weeks. And we had the most wonderful afternoon.

We headed down to Magdalen Bridge, where you can go punting or rent a rowboat. (We opted for the latter, feeling more confident in our rowing skill than our punting prowess.)

rowboats river cherwell oxford

After a couple of failed attempts at synchronized rowing, Lizzie took charge and rowed us out onto the river.

lizzie rowing

The girls had packed a feast – sandwiches, fruit, chips and veggies with hummus, flapjacks and cookies. Lizzie even packed some prosecco and plastic flutes. (Later on, we traded some to a Scottish couple in another boat for some of their banoffee chocolate. Yum.)

Mostly, we just had the loveliest time being together.

grace jo rowboat river oxford

It is six years since we all lived together, crowded into our wee house, cooking slapdash dinners and writing essays and brewing endless cups of tea. We always knew our living arrangement was temporary: I was in the UK for a one-year master’s program, and the other girls were finishing their undergraduate degrees. Grace and I were both engaged to the men who are now our husbands, and Jo met her husband, Tim, during that year. (The last time we were all together was at their wedding, five years ago.)

katie grace river oxford

Since our little household broke up, we have scattered far and wide, gotten married, moved too many times to count. Grace has a little boy and another baby on the way. I have made a cross-country move that proved just as challenging as my moves to Oxford and back. Jo has returned to the Welsh city where she grew up, and Lizzie has remained in Oxford while earning a master’s degree and establishing a career.

We have kept in touch via Facebook, text message and Christmas cards, knowing the broad outlines of one another’s lives while missing the details we knew during our year together. But we still love one another deeply, and that afternoon, we talked and laughed as though we had never been apart.

grace jo rowing

After the rowing (which proved excellent exercise), we wandered through town, pausing in Radcliffe Square for more photos.

housemates radcliffe camera oxford

We wound up with a walk to University Parks, where we sprawled on the grass and talked some more – about work and marriage and grown-up life, about family and travel and our days together in Oxford. “Do you miss anything about the UK?” Grace asked me at one point. That question has a thousand answers, but I gave her the most important one: “Yes. I miss all of you.”

It may be another several years before we are all together again. But this afternoon of sunshine and good talk and laughter will last me for quite a while.

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

oxford wall blue sky

The old familiar way into Oxford, then. Down Headington Hill, which offers no prospect of the towery city; along a nondescript street to the roundabout always called “The Plains,” with no sight yet of anything remarkable; and then a turn onto the bridge, on the far side of which rises Magdalen College tower – Gothic at its most austere and beautiful, and shedding like falling petals into the memories of anyone who ever heard them, the voices of the choirboys from aloft, singing an annual welcome to the first day of spring.

—The Late Scholar, Jill Paton Walsh

I read The Late Scholar on my overnight flight to London a few weeks ago – particularly apt, since its plot features Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (now Lady Wimsey) returning to Oxford (to solve a mystery, of course). I first fell in love with Peter and Harriet during my first long-ago spring in Oxford, when I read Gaudy Night and thrilled to every description of the city’s towers, golden stones and winding streets.

all souls towers oxford england

Like Peter, whose journey is described above (though he came by car), I came into Oxford the old, familiar way: on a bus from Heathrow Airport, through the countryside, half dozing for the first hour and then sitting up, alert, as we approached Oxford via the busy ring road.

all souls college oxford radcliffe square

It’s true that Headington Hill offers no view of the spires I love, but Headington’s high street has its own charms, and I relished every familiar sight: charity shops, alluring side roads, the Starbucks where I used to go see Lizzie at work and indulge in peppermint hot cocoa.

oxford view g&d's ice cream

We swept down the steep hill, past Oxford Brookes’ gleaming modern campus, the green bolt of South Park unrolling down the hill to our left, then swung around The Plain and rumbled over Magdalen Bridge.

magdalen bridge oxford england

I am never quite back in Oxford until I’ve caught a glimpse of Magdalen’s tower, tall and proud, its carved battlements tipped with gold in the morning sunshine. Then it was down the High Street, past Christ Church with its iconic Tom Tower, through a few back streets to the bus station, and onto the familiar cobblestones of Gloucester Green.

feet cobblestones

And then home, the old way – down St Giles and the Woodstock Road, past buildings and shops whose names all called out, dear and familiar to me.

st giles church oxford england

The pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to drink and argue about writing and theology. The Oxfam bookshop, though it was too early to stop and browse. The wishbone-shaped piece of land at the divergence of the Woodstock and Banbury Roads, where sits St Giles’ Church and its peaceful graveyard.

st giles church oxford england

The grand Roman Catholic Oratory. The unassuming Radcliffe Infirmary. A few familiar pubs, and several colleges bounded by their stone walls, over which leaned graceful trees, their leaves colored with the first hints of autumn.

katie leaves oxford

Peter Wimsey notes, later in the chapter quoted above, that “Oxford people return to base.” For Peter (as all Wimsey fans know), this means visiting Balliol, where he earned his degree.

balliol college oxford uk

For me, it means a pair of tall Victorian houses on a quiet street in North Oxford, where I spent a blissful semester as an undergraduate and many happy days as a postgrad student. They have sheltered hundreds of American students from my alma mater, and the sight of them always means one thing, deep down in my bones: I am home.

house 9 oxford uk

More Oxford photos and stories to come.

bookshop window books charing cross road london
(Books on Charing Cross Road in London)

The Late Scholar, Jill Paton Walsh
I usually don’t like fanfiction. But Walsh’s mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Dorothy Sayers’ erudite pair of detectives, are well done and so fun. I loved this one because they return to Oxford, my beloved city and scene of my favorite Sayers book, Gaudy Night.

At Risk, Stella Rimington
This book introduces Liz Carlyle, MI5 agent, as she and her team attempt to stop a pair of terrorists bent on destruction and revenge. Grim, but compelling. Pretty good plane reading.

A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Ashton’s third case finds her trying to exonerate a friend suspected of murder, while struggling not to be jealous of her fiance’s elegant ex-lover, an Austrian countess. An engaging setting (Vienna), though the plot did go on a bit.

The Heart Has Its Reasons, Maria Dueñas
I adored Dueñas’ debut, The Time in Between, but was disappointed by this, her second novel. The characters and plot had potential, but they – and the writing – didn’t grip me. (I wonder if the translation is partly to blame.)

Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens
Two students at Deepdean School for Girls form a Detective Society – but are shocked when they find a real murder to investigate. Fun, witty and well-plotted. Found at Blackwell’s. (To be published in the U.S. as Murder is Bad Manners.)

Isla and the Happily Ever After, Stephanie Perkins
I wanted to love this teenage love story set in Paris, but I found it melodramatic and lacking in substance. (I did enjoy Perkins’ debut, Anna and the French Kiss, several of whose characters reappear here.)

The Laws of Murder, Charles Finch
The eighth Charles Lenox mystery finds Lenox investigating the murder of a friend and colleague, while worrying he’s lost his detective edge. A leisurely, well-plotted mystery and a new stage in Lenox’s career. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 11).

A Bear Called Paddington, Michael Bond
I picked up this old favorite at the Paddington Bear Shop in London, and thoroughly enjoyed getting reacquainted with Paddington. Such fun and funny adventures.

Emily of New Moon, L.M. Montgomery
I’ve made it a fall goal to reread this lovely, haunting series. This first book introduces the cast of characters and starts Emily on the path to becoming a writer. Full of gorgeous descriptions of PEI, old family legends and bits of whimsy and wonder.

Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and its People, 1602-1890, Nathaniel Philbrick
I loved Philbrick’s Bunker Hill and enjoyed this account of Nantucket’s early history, told via mini-biographies of colorful local characters. Occasionally gets bogged down in detail, but mostly quite interesting. Found in Gloucester.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

A day out in London

london view red bus

During my recent trip to Oxford, I hopped the train to London for a day (it’s only an hour’s ride each way). London is the first European city I ever visited (when I was 16, on a high school band trip), and while I find it a little overwhelming, I do love it.

From the house in North Oxford where I was staying, it’s a lovely walk to the train station along the canal.

oxford canal morning

For breakfast on the go, I snagged a bacon-and-egg baguette from On the Hoof, the best sandwich shop anywhere.

katie baguette breakfast

After a smooth ride in the quiet car (I adore train travel), I disembarked at Paddington Station, where I bought a large chai latte at Caffe Nero (combating jet lag with caffeine) and ran into an old friend:

paddington bear shop

Paddington Station boasts an entire Paddington Bear shop, full of stuffed animals, books and other Paddington merchandise. I had a delightful browse, and when I came down the escalator nearby, the bear himself was waiting for me.

paddington bear statue

After saying hello, I hopped on the Tube and rode over to Tower Hill, site of the Tower of London.

tower of london poppies

This fall, volunteers are planting 888,246 crimson ceramic poppies around the base of the Tower, one for every British fatality in World War I. The final poppy will be planted on Remembrance Day (Nov. 11), and the flowers will eventually be sold off for charity.

tower of london poppies spill

Even though the installation isn’t complete yet, the effect is truly stunning.

poppies tower of london

The jostling crowds at the railing detracted from the effect a little, but I still found myself getting choked up.

tower of london poppies

I walked around all four sides of the tower, snapping photos, and said hello to another old friend: Tower Bridge.

katie tower bridge

I hopped back on the Tube to meet the lovely Caroline for lunch in the National Gallery’s posh cafe. After finishing our salads, we headed out for an afternoon of book browsing.

bookshop window books charing cross road london

The bookshops along Charing Cross Road are legendary, and we talked each other into a couple of purchases (Gilead for her, The Handmaid’s Tale for me) before heading up the road to Foyles. Their new premises – five floors’ worth! – are rather dazzling.

foyles books london

We were a bit overwhelmed, but managed a tour of the fiction floor and the children’s area. I came away with a lovely edition of Sense and Sensibility and a copy of The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp, the new Eva Rice novel I’ve been dying to read.

From Foyles, we caught the Tube to King’s Cross Station, where I wanted to get my photo taken at Platform 9 3/4. Unfortunately, the queue was long, Caroline had a train to catch and I had another friend to meet – so we contented ourselves with walking by, then snapping a slightly blurred selfie.

katie caroline selfie

London always feels like a mad dash – so many things to see and places to go, most of which seem to be across town from one another. This day was no exception – I made good use of my day pass on the Underground, and I was plenty tired by the time I got back to Oxford that night. But it was a wonderful day.

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