Filling the Downton Abbey void

It’s maybe been a while since I mentioned that I loved Downton Abbey. I mean, it was a popular show, I’m not alone in this. The show definitely also sent me scurrying after related reading material. That’s how I came to read Lady Almina and the Real Downtown Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, and then Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, and even Below Stairs, which really led to Serving Victoria.

Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, had a follow up show where he visits famous estates and digs around to find out some of the more interesting stories. It’s called Great Houses with Julian Fellowes and it’s awesome.

Recently, I read his new book, Belgravia.


Belgravia opens on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels. The next day many of the guests go off to fight in the battle; many of them do not return. We meet the Trenchard family – James, his wife Anne and their beautiful daughter Sophia. James is a supplier to the army and his fortunes have been climbing as he’s able to achieve what most cannot. They manage to get an invite to the ball via Sophia’s relationship with Lord Bellasis, a favourite nephew of the Duchess of Richmond.

In a time when social rules dictated who could marry whom, Sophia is not a ‘good’ match for Lord Bellasis – her father works.

The rest of the story takes place in London in the 1840s, when those heady days in Brussels changes everything for these families.

I know – I’m being vague again. But the enjoyment of this book relies on one not knowing very much going in.

Here’s what’s interesting about Belgravia: yes, you can read it in traditional book format, but originally it was released as a serialization, both text and audio,  via an app! The book very much reads this way – each chapter feels episodic, there are cliffhangers, and I ended up speeding through the 402 pages.

Otherwise, this book was eminently readable. There is no one better when it comes to this type of historical feature. Fellowes has an incredible depth of knowledge when it comes to society, the relationships therein, the changes as a new class of wealth showed up on the scene intent on mingling with the top echelons of English Society, as well as the dynamics of service at the time. The characters feel like real people and Fellowes writes for an audience that he knows is capable of following along. He doesn’t write down to you, he doesn’t affect jargon of the time to try and lend his work more credibility. It just is credible. Even watching him on Great Houses, I’m always struck by how polite he is, how respectful he is of everyone he interacts with.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be notable, but it totally is.

If you miss Downton, this should fill the void.


Lake Reads: BC Day Edition


lake reads

Look at what I did! Learning and growing, guys.

As my shiny new graphic may have indicated, I’m off for another long weekend at the lake. This time around is a little different – my sister, Audrey of Aud Thoughts, is coming with! I’m sure for a lot of people, the addition of an extra person would mean that less reading would occur. But Audrey and I are the kind of sisters that will just read together. I suspect Holly and Amanda at Gun in Act One are similar.

But you didn’t come here to hear about sister reading (did you?). You want to know what I’ve brought with me to the lake, right? I have some good ones coming with me! Right now, I’m reading one of these.

The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight. You may recall that I LOVED Reconstructing Amelia. Her second book, Where They Found Her, was just OK for me. The Outliers is our book club book – apparently this is the first in a trilogy. Wylie gets a text from her best friend Cassie, ‘Please Wylie, I need your help.’ This is the first Wylie has heard from Cassie in over a week so of course she’s going to do what she needs to to help her friend.

Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. This one is described as Emma set in Modern Asia so that’s really all I need. Amanda read it recently and said it was more serious than she expected it to be but I guess now I’m prepared for that!

Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin. First of all, this woman’s name is Wednesday and I can totally get behind that. This book, an anthropological look at the insanity that is the Upper East Side, sounds gossipy and snotty and great. I’d been meaning to read this one for a while and when I walked into Chapters the other day, the paperback was on for $15. Yes, please.

The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty. Guys, this is the last of Moriarty’s books that I have to read! Once I read this, I will have read ALL of her books and have to wait for her to write something new. (I read Truly Madly Guilty and it was amazing. Totally maintaining the Moriarty Standard of Excellence). Sophie’s perfect boyfriend is going to propose but on the day he’s going to do it, she ends the relationship and breaks his heart. A year later, he’s  married to someone else and Sophie wonders if he’s the one that got away. Listen – it might not sound like your cup of tea but when Liane Moriarty is at the helm, a straight forward story becomes so much more.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes. Anyone else feeling like they need a hit of Downton? This book from the show’s creator is set in the 1840s but begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It all starts at the Duchess of Richmond’s infamous ball and I am here for it.

The Fire Witness by Lars Kepler. Guys, I can’t get enough of this series. Kepler has become one of my favourite Scandinavian crime writers. After this one, I still have Stalker to go. This one tells the tale of a gruesome and strange murder in a home for teenaged girls. Joona Linna returns to find out what happened. Lake rule: you must always bring crime fiction.

The Hopefuls is also coming up with us because Audrey has requested it. And! For the first time ever, my husband wants to read a book that I recommended. I’m not supposed to make a big deal out of it or he won’t read it… (The book is Dark Matter)

Hope you have some good reads on deck this weekend!






Downton Reads: Below Stairs

Did you love Downton Abbey? Right?  So good. I cannot wait until Season 3.

Lucky for me, since the advent of Downton Abbey everyone has been doing their part to uncover old Downton-esque favourites or bring to the forefront those titles that helped bring Downton to the small screen.

I am totally OK with being suckered into buying a new book because it now has some sticker on the front saying something along the lines of “Inspiration for Downton Abbey” or some quote from Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes like “I love this book” because I do love Downton and I will totally read anything that might have had something to do with it on any level.

Which brings me to Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs: The Best Selling Memoirs of a 1920s Kitchen Maid.

It was a short and sweet read but I can totally see how this might have served as inspiration for some of the characters and plots of Downton Abbey. There was the housemaid that gets pregnant and is sent away, descriptions of all the work that poor Daisy is forced to do (it really was a lot!), and the servants’ balls and Christmas traditions. Powell talks very openly about the kinds of relationships she had with her employers – she was there to do a job but she didn’t care about the people she worked for. They were almost like a different species.

Powell has a very distinct voice – she writes exactly like she might have spoken. As a result it can feel like you are sitting with your grandmother and she is telling you all about this extraordinary life that you never knew she had. All about what it was like to live in 2 rooms with her entire family, how she only stayed in service long enough to get a husband, how she became a cook at the age of 25 when all she knew how to make well were vegetables. This woman is a product of a different time and she is completely charming and open. You get the sense that there is nothing she wouldn’t tell you the complete truth about.

The book was originally published in 1968 when the world was already vastly different than the one that she was writing about. But reading it in 2012 – both worlds seem completely foreign to me. Which was kind of delightful because everything was so surprising. Of course I know that they used to have to make potato chips by hand but I honestly didn’t even think that they would have had them in fancy manor houses in the early years of the 20th century!

There are other “Downton” books that I have on my list (To Marry An English Lord, The American Heiress and Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey to name a few. You can find an awesome list of more Downton reads here) and Powell has a sequel as well so I’m sure that I will be able to satiate my appetite for the Downton-esque but this one will probably stay at the top of my list because it was so purely Downton.