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!

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!

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 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.

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.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but at the suggestion of a good friend I picked up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first in a series by Alan Bradley starring wannabe detective Flavia de Luce.  Flavia is one of the most unique protagonists I have seen lately:  she’s smart, inquisitive, resourceful, and witty.  She has an obsession with chemistry, especially poisons.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s eleven years old?

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to Flavia and her family, who are living in an estate called Buckshaw in England in the 1950s.  Her mother disappeared when she was a baby, so Flavia is left with her distant father, her antagonistic older sisters, and man-about-the-house Dogger.  Things are boring as usual at Buckshaw when Flavia discovers a dead man in their cucumber patch in the middle of the night.  When Flavia’s father is taken into custody as the prime suspect, Flavia gets on the case to find out who really did it and prove her father’s innocence.  Flavia follows a series of initially puzzling clues (including an antique postage stamp and a dead bird) that lead to the identity of the killer, making for an exciting and surprising climax.  I listened to the audiobook and it’s very enjoyable; the reader manages to capture Flavia’s spirit very well and make it an exciting listen.

After finishing this book I had to immediately go out and pick up a copy of the second in the series, called The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  Flavia meets a traveling puppet show team whose car has broken down, and so they elect to do a series of shows in Bishop’s Lacey while they are waiting for the repairs.  When the star of the show is murdered, of course Flavia is the first one on the case.  I’m in the middle of it right now and I’m glad to say that Flavia has kept her cheek and tenacity fully intact.  The third book in the series, A Red Herring Without Mustard, just came out a couple months ago to rave reviews, and it’s certainly next on my “To Read” list.  If you like mysteries with a strong female protagonist, the charming setting of England, or mysteries that really keep you guessing right up to the end, this series will not disappoint.  Even if you don’t usually read mysteries, I recommend checking out this series, because I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting to know Flavia de Luce.

A Spider on the Stairs is a “contemporary reimagining of the classic English mystery.”  It is refreshingly old-fashioned in its absence of gore and forensic razzle-dazzle.

This is part of a series featuring Scotland Yard Sergeant Jack Gibbons and his best friend, Phillip Bethancourt. Bethancourt is an upper-class dilettante who tags along with Gibbons while he investigates first one, then several murders around the beautiful, yet tourist-clogged town of York. Chan does a marvelous job of evoking the cozy atmosphere of the bookshop, York’s warren of streets and the countryside during a particularly rainy spell.

Phillip’s social connections  provide Jack with  insider knowledge that help to solve the case. Because he doesn’t have to work and has no real family obligations, Bethancourt can devote whatever time and energy he has left over- after  socializing late into the evening and romancing women.

The book begins with a murder in Mittlesdon, a charming old bookshop. There is a feeling of calm, unhurried serenity  as the bodies stack up – even the bad guys remain polite and civilized.

Sherlock Holmes comes to the 21st century in the new BBC series Sherlock. Consulted reluctantly by the police, Holmes is brilliant, sarcastic and socially awkward. Watson, a military doctor that has just returned from Afghanistan after being wounded, is not the bumbling fool so often portrayed in film but is an equal partner in the detective work and also serves as a moral compass for Holmes.

The familiar framework remains, just tweaked in places for the modern setting. Thus, the deerstalker becomes a scarf, Watson keeps a blog rather than a journal, London atmosphere comes from a skyline that includes the Millenium Wheel and the Gherkin building rather than foggy, cobblestone streets and Holmes finds his informants among the homeless rather than street children. What doesn’t change, however, is the brilliant Holmes – socially misfit, actively disliked by many, hyper intelligent.

As you would expect from the BBC, the production values are excellent. Filming on location in London lends authentic atmosphere; the writing is sharp and witty with many homages to the Arthur Conan Doyle originals; and the acting is outstanding. The only negative? There are only three episodes. However, the series proved to be so popular in England that they are currently filming three more episodes – watch for them on PBS in the fall.

Whether you’re new to Sherlock Holmes, or longtime fan you’re sure to enjoy this fun new series.

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, begins a new series, The Cousin’s War, in which each book focuses on an important woman who had a pivital role in England’s War of the Roses.

The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a recent widow with young children, who catches the eye of the young Kind Edward IV.  Elizabeth then marries him in a secret ceremony and becomes queen.  Soon thereafter, the King leaves to fight a battle against his brother, in which the winner will be declared the rightful King of England.

Years later, Elizabeth is caught in the middle of the long standing war and makes drastic decisions as a mother and as a queen.  Her most difficult decision concerned her two sons whose fate as the “princes in the tower,” has baffled historians for centuries.  Philippa Gregory’s book seamlessly weaves historical fact with a fictional but personable account of medieval life in the first person. This fascinating book portrays the epic battles for power, treason, humanity and the dynamics of a royal family.

If you’re looking for a thriller that’s engaging and scenic, The Ghost Writer fits the bill. Both Martha’s Vineyard (actually Germany) and a cast that includes Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor are easy on the eyes. The windswept beaches and desolate rainstorms are forbidding yet stunningly beautiful.

Ewan McGregor plays a professional ghostwriter who is hired to finish the memoirs of  Adam Lang, a Tony Blair-like ex-prime minister. The book takes on more importance when Lang is accused of war crimes, and it becomes apparent that the job of ghostwriter may be a highly risky occupation.

Directed by Roman Polanski and based on The Ghost by Robert Harris, the movie is intelligent and full of twists and turns right up until the last moment.