servantsFrom the immense staff running a lavish Edwardian estate and the lonely maid-of-all-work cooking in a cramped middle-class house to the poor child doing chores in a slightly less poor household, servants were essential to the British way of life. They were hired not only for their skills but also to demonstrate the social standing of their employers even as they were required to tread softly and blend into the background. More than simply the laboring class serving the upper crust as popular culture would have us believe, they were a diverse group that shaped and witnessed major changes in the modern home, family, and social order.

Spanning over a hundred years, Lucy Lethbridge in this “best type of history” brings to life through letters and diaries the voices of countless men and women who have been largely ignored by the historical record. She also interviews former and current servants for their recollections of this waning profession. At the fore are the experiences of young girls who slept in damp corners of basements, kitchen maids who were required to stir eggs until the yolks were perfectly centered, and cleaners who had to scrub floors on their hands and knees despite the wide availability of vacuum cleaners. We also meet a lord who solved his inability to open a window by throwing a brick through it and Winston Churchill’s butler who did not think Churchill would know how to dress on his own.

A compassionate and discerning exploration of the complex relationship between the server, the served, and the world they lived in, Servants opens a window onto British society from the Edwardian period to the present. (description by publisher)

jamie olivers great britainHaving grown up in his parents’ gastropub, Jamie Oliver has always had a special place in his heart for British cooking. And in recent years there’s been an exciting revolution in the British food world in general. English chefs, producers, and artisans are retracing old recipes, rediscovering quality ingredients, and focusing on simplicity and quality. Jamie celebrates the best of the old and new (including classic British immigrant food) in his first cookbook focused on England in Jamie Oliver’s Great Britain.

Here are over 130 great, easy-to-prepare recipes, ranging from salads–Heavenly Salmon and Epic Roast Chicken; to puddings–Rhubarb and Rice Pudding and Citrus Cheesecake Pots; to Sunday lunch–Guinness Lamb Shanks and Roast Quail Skewers; and, of course, the crumbliest scones. America has already fallen for the new British gastropub cooking, with popular restaurants by chefs such as April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig and the John Dory. Now Jamie shows how to make the same delicious food at home. This is definitely not your grandmother’s mushy peas! (description from publisher)

Headed to London for the Olympics? First of all : jealous! Second : I hope you have tickets/hotel/transportation already arranged – the grand old city is bound to be bursting at the seams. Still looking for some tips on how to occupy your time between watching the handball semi-finals and the whitewater rafting qualifying? Here are some books that will give you lots of ideas, whether you’re in town for the Games or just dreaming of visiting someday.

DK Eyewitness Travel London – Offers maps, history, and general features, detailed guides through the various areas of the city. and suggestions for specific walks. Also provides a street finder and hints on shops and markets, entertainment, children’s interests, transportation. Colorful photographs adorn every page.

Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places by Christopher Somerville – Storm-battered headlands, hidden waterfalls, tumbledown cottages, the ruins of haunted chapels deep in forgotten woods, medieval Green Men, old mines and quarries being recaptured by nature, rusting sea-forts tottering on sandbanks. Britain and Ireland are full of wild places, some remote, many often astonishingly close to civilization.

Berlitz Handbook of Great Britain – What sets this guide apart is the illuminating Unique Experiences section which are packed full of practical advice on how to make the most of all the opportunities unique to Britain – from visiting royal residences to watching a soccer match, or exploring Brontë country in Yorkshire.

Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in London– Features walking tours of London including the Royal Parks, Jack the Ripper’s trail in the East End, a walk along the Thames, literary themed walks that feature the inspirational settings ranging from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.

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.

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.

MI5 intelligence officer Liz Carlisle stars in Dead Line,  the fourth Stella Rimington spy novel.This time, an agent passes along a tip about a threat to a Middle East peace summit being held at a golf resort in Scotland, in which European, American and Middle Eastern heads of state will be in attendance.  Liz tries to anticipate and prevent the unknown event without disrupting the conference.

Rimington was the head of the UK counter-intelligence and security agency in the mid-90’s. Her insider knowledge of surveillance units and the relationships between the Israeli Mossad, the CIA and the home British security agencies is surely authentic.  There are interesting insights as to the etiquette of other friendly nations spying on each other. For example, Israeli diplomats who are also spies are supposed to be “registered” as such.

The MI5 in these books is a more genteel and much less frenetic organization than that of the BBC series, which was all about technology, violence and derring do.  Liz and her courtly boss Charles Wetherby have the occasional turf battle with MI6 but it’s all very civil. It makes for a pleasant change from the hyper and profane American thriller. As a matter of fact, the British make a few snide remarks about their arrogant, but highly polished Secret Service brethren.