The Dark Rose by Erin Kelly

Inspired by a glowing review on NPR and the gorgeous cover design, I snapped up The Dark Rose as quickly as I could. It’s a mild thriller-cum-literary novel that tangles with the questions of morality and guilt. If you intend to do harm but fail, are you guilty of the crime? If you intend to do good, but fall into the wrong side of the law, are you morally at fault?  Yes and yes, according to Erin Kelly, an author who hands out death and disaster with a free hand; hers is a universe where even minor crimes don’t go unpunished, and the result is oddly satisfying (if a bit bleak). The story follows two central characters – Louisa and Paul – and three timelines: Louisa’s volatile relationship with rocker Adam Glasslake as an 18 year old in 1989 London, Paul’s troubled upbringing in a suburban slum under the wing of his illiterate best friend Daniel, and the present day, where the two characters meet and work together restoring a sixteenth-century garden in the British countryside. Louisa is immediately drawn to Paul, a doppelganger of her long gone lover Adam, and Paul – vulnerable in the aftermath of agreeing to testify against his best friend in a murder trial – is drawn to her as well. Each of them is flawed in interesting and unique ways, and they have coping methods and personalities that feel genuine as well as compelling.

Juggling multiple timelines is a feat successfully maneuvered by few authors, but Kelly does a respectable job matching the pacing and tone between her segments and blending them together the right way. Unfortunately, she’s much better at characterization than plotting, as her attempt isn’t without flaws: the present day story starts off running and only picks up speed, while the back stories start off slower and eventually grind to a crawl near the 2/3 mark. It’s frustrating to have to leave the exciting, sensual present to revisit teenaged Louisa and Paul flailing in 1989 and 2009, respectively, as they cope with circumstances and guilt that will haunt them going forward. That aside, the language in this book is splendid and the gardening subplot is a rich source of metaphor and a tidy frame for the story.

We are all guilty of something; this book is about what happens when that guilt catches up to you.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James is a mystery set 6 years after Pride & Prejudice, when Lizzie’s disgraced sister Lydia comes to the Darcy estate screaming that her husband – the notorious rogue George Wickham – has been murdered. Everyone has a different opinion on Pride & Prejudice sequels. “Glorified fanfiction,” some say. “Total crap,” or “completely wonderful,” say others. I think the line between success and failure depends not only on good writing, setting, plotting, and characters, but on a critical distinction: no one but Jane Austen should write Jane Austen’s characters. Elizabeth’s wit and Darcy’s mysterious motives are the critical features that make Pride & Prejudice such an enduring classic, and any other authors trying to inhabit these characters inevitably struggle to do as well as Austen did. P.D. James, although an accomplished and talented author by any definition, is regrettably no exception. Her Darcy is wooden and boring, her Elizabeth does little but turn up every 25 pages and agree with her husband, and her speculation on Colonel Fitzwilliam’s future and character is hardly in line with the lovable, friendly man we know from P&P. The characters she invents – a dashing suitor for Georgiana, the staff of Pemberley – are much more vivid and entertaining.

James can turn a phrase admirably; even in its most stilted information-dumping passages (lots of early 19th century criminal law needs to be explained – feel free to skim these parts), the writing isn’t at fault here. It’s revealing that the best chapter of the entire book is the first one, where James neatly summarizes the events of Pride & Prejudice and weaves in the 6 years of additional plot she’s invented. You would expect a summary to be boring, but this one’s remarkably engaging; it’s the plodding mystery that stalls this book.

If you love mysteries and you love Austen continuations, give Death Comes to Pemberley a try. Although truth be told, you might be happier re-reading the original, especially if you’re an Austen purist or a demanding mystery fan. Despite a few good ideas, this book doesn’t satisfy on either end of that spectrum.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

It’s so lovely when a novel can turn a well-worn trope into a fresh, lively story. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger turns cliches into something more in Her Fearful Symmetry. The story follows 21 year old twins Julia and Valentina, who inherit their aunt Elspeth’s London flat and fortune on the condition that they live in the dwelling, without their parents or any other chaperone, for one year. The catch: Elspeth, mute and invisible, has clung to her flat and haunts it – and she’s getting stronger every day. Don’t groan! It sounds horribly cliched – identical twins; an inheritance contingent upon ridiculous demands; London; ghosts – but it’s so much more than it seems. Elspeth is the estranged twin sister of Julia and Valentina’s mother, Edie; the elder sisters have a history of secrets that Niffenegger unravels throughout the tale. Even more impressive is the host of delightful secondary characters: Martin, an obsessive-compulsive neighbor who writes crossword puzzles for a living, and his estranged wife Marijke (pronounced Mah-RYE-Kuh); Robert, a cemetery historian and Elspeth’s former lover; even the white kitten the twins adopt has personality and verve. They call him “The Little Kitten of Death.”

It’s a beautiful, unusual tale that unfolds slowly and doesn’t pander to the reader. Both of Niffenegger’s novels tell the stories of ordinary, although perhaps quite unusual, people who must find a way to navigate a frightening, supernatural situation. She tells the tale at the pace she wants, rather than dropping in action sequences and extra dialog where they don’t belong. If you liked the style of The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’ll be pulled in by this ghostly, ethereal tale. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was excellent in that format; a perfect companion for rainy springtime commutes!

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter by Simon Brett

If you enjoy P.G. Wodehouse, you will love Simon Brett’s newest mystery, Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter  Blotto is even more clueless than the aristocratic Bertie Wooster.

While Wooster has his butler, Jeeves,  Blotto is also lucky enough to have a  much smarter sidekick.  In this case, the handsome son of the Duke of Tawcaster (pronounced taster) is guided by his sister, Twinks. She is not only smart, but beautiful and loves to use her analytical skills to solve mysteries. In this book, she feels fortunate to have a dead body right in her own home, Tawcaster Towers. Her mother, the Duchess, forces the local constable to spirit away the dead body before her dinner party adjourns for cigars.

Britain’s ruling class is parodied in a cheerfully absurdist writing style, and the time between the two world wars seems refreshingly innocent.

Miss Potter

If you ever need a DVD for all generations – say, around the holidays…,  Miss Potter is perfect for this situation – it is whimsical without being overly saccharine.

This is a peek into Victorian society – in which Beatrix is encouraged from childhood on to exploit her talent as an artist, yet her parents are bound by rigid class lines when it comes to marriage.

The cast is filled with great British character actors, including  Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson as Beatrix’ parents. And the wonderfully weird chaperone, Miss Wiggin, is played by Matyelok Gibbs. Emily Watson plays the sister of Beatrix’ fiance, who immediately adopts Beatrix as a soulmate and friend.

As a bonus, it is  beautifully produced with a wonderful soundtrack by Katie Melua.  Even though this isn’t technically a holiday movie, it will add a bit of magic to this festive season.

Don’t forget to check out the actual books (The Tailor of Gloucester was Beatrix’ favorite and perfect for the Christmas season).

At Home by Bill Bryson

Hearty praise for Bill Bryson isn’t new to the Info Cafe blog (both Lynn and Ann have gushed about him in the past), but he is new to me! The audiobook of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, read by the author, was the first Bryson book I’ve read, and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever encountered on any subject. Part of the appeal comes from the irresistible subject matter: Bryson deals with the everyday, but elevates it beyond the mundane into something fascinating. The greater part of the book’s success is Bryson himself – dry wit that had me laughing and quoting passages to friends, great writing that’s both intelligent and accessible, and (crucially) excellent narration.

No matter what you’re interested in, there is something for you in At Home: architecture, cooking, engineering, etymology, inventing, transportation, medicine, sanitation and hygiene, social history, entertainment, a dash of politics, and mostly, British and American history. If history isn’t your thing, don’t be intimidated – though much of the book deals with historical matters, it never feels stuffy or boring (with the possible, arguable exception of a lengthy chapter on British architecture that suffers from a lack of the visual aids present in the printed book). The comforts we’re accustomed to – bright lights, running water, soap, sturdy clothing, efficient laundry, regular bathing, doctors who wash their hands, and a reasonable expectation that rats will NOT nest inside your mattress even as you sleep above them – these things are all shockingly new.

I particularly recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of historical novels, from Jane Austen through Diana Gabaldon; once you learn about the privy fixtures and habits of cleanliness in the pre-modern era, your reading of Emma will never be the same!

Super-duper seal of approval: after hearing a snippet while riding in my car, my book-phobic husband insisted on taking it off my hands to listen himself!

Writing a love letter to Katie Fforde and her book jackets

I have been wanting to read a book by Katie Fforde for a while now. Why?

A. Her book covers are so fresh & lovely
B. She is the cousin-in-law of one of my very favorite authors, Jasper Fforde.

Very good reasons, but not quite enough to jump to the top of my very long to-read list. Luckily, one of her books did the unthinkable and bypassed the list altogether! I found myself at work with no new US Weekly magazine to read for lunch and there was the pretty, hand-lettered cover of Love Letters staring up at me from an items-recently-returned book truck. After reading just a few pages I knew that I would spend my evening curled up on the front porch with this book.

Love Letters revolves around a bookish girl in her mid-twenties, Laura, who finds herself out of a job when her grandfatherly employer decides to retire and close their beloved bookshop. However, Laura has earned a bit of a reputation for her expert handling of authors at the shop’s popular book-signing events and she is quickly recruited to organize a country book festival. Of course nothing can be simple: the book festival’s sponsor will only supply the funds if Laura can guarantee the appearance of a certain reclusive, notoriously difficult, and incredibly handsome Irish author. So begins the delightful adventures of Laura as she travels across England and Ireland, staying in hip country estates and sleeping in wild authors’ beds. The whole story is very romantic, cozy and lovely–just like the book’s jacket design!

And speaking of the book design, I was super excited to find that the newest editions of Katie Fforde’s books provide information on the jacket’s designers, illustrator and calligrapher! (who are Head Design, Sophie Griotto and Jill Calder, respectively.) Kudos to you, St. Martin Press, for giving credit to the people responsible for me picking up Love Letters to begin with!

Downton Abbey on DVD

Family politics, secret lovers, mysterious deaths, thwarted love – it’s all here, dressed up in exquisite Edwardian detail, surrounded by the lush beauty of the English countryside of the wealthy. Downton Abbey brings the trials and tribulations of a noble family and their various servants to life in this wonderful new series from the BBC.

Lord Robert Crawley and his family live in quiet luxury in their beautiful Yorkshire estate supported by a fleet of servants. Their leisurely life is shaken when the sinking of the Titanic takes Sir Robert’s heirs. Because he and his American-born wife have only daughters, in accordance to English law when Sir Robert dies, the estate will now pass to a distant male cousin previously unknown to the family. Prepared to despise the new heir (who actually works for a a living as a solicitor), the family instead find themselves becoming fond of Matthew and his strong views of fairness. Can the eldest daughter Sybil admit to her growing feelings for Matthew, or is she only thinking of saving the family estate when she considers marrying him?

Meanwhile, various dramas unfold below stairs. A new valet, who shares a mysterious past with Sir Robert, is hired and Thomas the footman schemes against him. A maid must help Lady Crawley hide a terrible secret and the loyalty of the servants is tested again and again as their lives intertwine irrevocably with the family.

As you would expect from the BBC, the production values of this series are flawless – costumes, sets, writing, photography and acting are all top-notch. The advantage of the DVD set is that while four shows were seen on PBS earlier this year, there are seven shows available on this DVD as well as making-of specials and commentaries. A sensation in England, a second season set during World War I has been filmed. After seeing the first season, you’ll be anxiously awaiting it’s arrival in the US!

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful little love story.  Judging from the cover art,  I was expecting it to take place earlier in the century, but it is definitely set in the present day, in a charming English country village called Edgecomb St. Mary.

Major Pettigrew, though retired, is the personification of a very proper English gentleman, fond of all things British, including a cup of freshly brewed tea.  When his brother dies unexpectedly, he is surprised to find himself drawn into a friendship with Mrs. Ali, a local Pakistani shopkeeper.  As their friendship develops into something more, they discover that many of their friends and neighbors have trouble accepting their new relationship.  Throw is some scenes from some recalcitrant family members and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged drama.  Well, okay, it’s not a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet, but it is sweet, it is sensitive and it is a refreshingly real love story featuring more “mature” participants.  But then, love is not only for the young — and we can all choose to be young at heart.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

I really wanted to read this book, but I kept putting it back on the shelf.  At nearly 1000 pages (985 to be exact) I knew I could read three books in the same time it would take me to finish just this one.  I shouldn’t have waited.  Turns out, it really was a pretty quick read — but that’s because I hardly ever put it down!

Fall of Giants isn’t Ken Follett’s first historical fiction book, nor will it be his last.  Readers will no doubt remember his Pillars of the Earth, which was an Oprah Book Club choice, plus its sequel, World Without End. And of course, this title is just the first in a planned Century trilogy.   But let’s get to the book.  It covers five families — Welsh, Russian, German, American and English.  Some are wealthy aristocrats, like the Fitzhuberts, and others, like Billy Williams and his sister Ethel, are on the opposite end of the socio-economic scale.  Rounding out this mix are the orphaned Peshkov brothers in Russia, an American lawyer working in the White House, and, oh yes, a German spy.  So you see, there’s a little something for everyone –political intrigue, scintillating sex and romance, and some action-packed battle scenes.  Plus the multiple story lines (arranged chronologically) keeps you turning those pages.

What’s most intriguing is how the lives of all these diverse characters somehow logically interconnect.  Though I’m certainly no expert on the World War I era (the book spans the years 1911 to 1924) I was familiar enough to recognize that Follett had meticulously researched this tome, and his inclusion of real historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, seems to enhance it’s believability.  Believe me, even if you think you don’t, you really do have time to read this book.