#20BooksofSummer: Upstairs Downstairs

The first month of the#20BooksofSummer Challenge, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books, is done! And while I may have failed spectacularly at reviewing said books, I have managed to actually read four of my 12 books.

You already know how I felt about Rivers of London, today I’m going to do a two-for-one and talk about Servants and The Fifth Avenue Artists Society because they are ever so slightly related and that’s how I roll.


The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Calloway is kind of a love story, kind of  Little Women homage, and kind of a mystery. Virginia Loftin is the Jo March in her family of artists that includes a sister who designs hates for fashionable New Yorkers (in the Gilded Age this includes the Vanderbilts and the Astors), one who’s a teacher, and one who is musical. Virginia has been in love with Charlie, the boy next door, for as long as she can remember but his circumstances means proposing to a woman who comes with an independent fortune. In the throes of heartbreak, her brother brings her to a creative salon where writers, artists and musicians show and discuss their work and make connections to hopefully be able to make money from it.

But there are other things going on behind the scenes and some of the shiny young people who showed such promise die in mysterious circumstances. Once Virginia becomes involved with the host of the Society, John Hopper, she’s drawn in closer to the center of the storm.

I love a great Gilded Age historical novel but it took me a while to connect to this one. There was a lot happening in the shadows but never quite enough to pull me in. I’m not convinced that the mystery portion of the plot was given enough attention – it was like Calloway couldn’t decided if that was to be the main focus or a bonus and decided to play it safe by skirting the issue entirely.

That said, the ending was every kind of satisfying. Reading the Author’s Note I discovered that Virginia was based on a real relative of Calloway’s, that she and her sisters were real people and The Fifth Avenue Artists Society an attempt at telling their story (with some embellishments). I kind of wished that we had gotten a non-fiction tale instead. This one was intriguing but not quite the Gilded Age hit I was looking for.

And now we stretch to connect Servants to The Fifth Avenue Artists Society – servants were all but non-existent in the latter but had Virginia and her family still had money they would have for sure had them.


I have long been fascinated by the role of domestic servants in Britain but it’s hard to find books that focus solely on them. I was really excited to come across Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge, hoping that it would fill in some of that knowledge gaps.

Servants jumps all over the place quite a bit. Some sections are about specific roles (butlers, nurses/governesses), others are about service in places like India, still others about how ‘going into service’ was viewed at different points in time. It never felt like it was a super focused book, even though it was very thoroughly researched.

I recently read Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes by Virginia Nicholson and that book did an incredible job of telling the stories of women in the 1950s who were “just” housewives. I think I was hoping for more of that from Servants. I wanted to hear the stories of the men and women who chose to spend their careers in service to others, what their backgrounds were, what they thought of the work they did and the people they worked for. Mostly it was more or less anonymous snippets from letters and journals without a real sense of the people who wrote those things.

And for a book about servants we sure got to hear a lot from those who employed them and what they thought of them and the work that they did (hint: not much).

Reading Servants mostly made me want to go back and read more of Virginia Nicholson’s work. Thankfully Singled Out is part of my #20BooksofSummer list!


Daylight reading only: If You Tell

A few weeks ago I was listening to the My Favorite Murder podcast when they were talking about this woman who started a “clinic” to help people with a myriad of health conditions by starving them. She wound up killing a bunch of her patients – the story was horrific. I can’t remember if it was Karen or Georgia doing the telling but she got a lot of the story by reading a book that Gregg Olsen wrote about it.

Weirdly, a few days later someone from Gregg Olsen’s publishing team reached out to see if I would be interested in reading his new book, out December 1st. I didn’t even finish reading the email before I replied YES.

cover - if you tell

I thought the story of the starvation cure was awful but it has nothing on the heinous deeds of Shelly Knopek and her husband, Dave. If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood tells the story of Shelly and Dave Knopek, the Washington State couple who abused, terrorized and murdered three people who had moved in with them, while also inflicting heinous abuse on their three daughters.

I very much appreciated that Olsen began the book by telling readers that the Knopek’s daughters, Nikki, Sami and Tori are today, safe and thriving in their new lives, away from the devastating abuse that was forced upon them for years. As I made my way through their story, I hung onto the fact that the girls, at least, were going to be OK in the end. The things that they saw, the things that were done to them, the way their mother gaslighted them throughout their lives – it is remarkable to me that these women are anywhere near OK today.

This story is one of the worst that I’ve ever read and Olsen does an incredible job of not reveling in the gruesome details. He manages to describe what happened without an ounce of rubbernecking which I for one was grateful for. I got the sense the entire time that he was a friend of the family, someone who had worked to gain the trust of these women who had burdened with horrific family secrets for so long. I’m not trying to be coy by not describing the details – for one thing, I think the reading experience is a bit better by not knowing too much, for another, it truly is a disgusting tale and if true crime isn’t your thing, you don’t need to know the details!

I couldn’t put this book down. I raced through the pages in less than two days, reluctant to leave the family at any point where things were especially bad. Olsen’s writing is spare, to the point, sticking to the facts and refraining from embellishing a story that’s already worse than anything you’ve read recently. It’s the kind of book that I wouldn’t read before bed, for fear that the Knopeks would haunt my dreams. I recommend full daylight when someone else is home for your own reading experience.

If you’re a true crime reader, if you’re a murderino, if you love 48 Hours and Dateline, I know you’re going to want to pick up If You Tell when it’s out next week.

Thanks to Dandelion PR for an ARC of this book. 


Nonfiction November 2019: Fiction/Nonfiction Pairings

Week 2 of Nonfiction November is a real highlight for me every year. This week is hosted by the brilliant Sarah @ Sarah’s Bookshelves (seriously, have you listened to her podcast? So many great books all the time!) and is really a great way for people who don’t think they like nonfiction to get introduced to some great books. For the nonfiction/fiction book pairings:

It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Without further ado, here are mine!

Kick Kennedy

I first read about Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy when I read Laurence Leamer’s The Kennedy Women. But as she died when she was 28, there wasn’t a whole lot of time devoted to her or her story. Which is bananas because her life was…well, when I finally read her biography, I was sobbing.

The Kennedy Debutante by Kerri Maher. This book looks at a very specific time in Kick’s life. We meet Kick in 1938 on the day she debuts in London Society, as the daughter of the American Ambassador to England. The book follows an incredibly popular Kick at all the parties and the estate weekends she is invited to. And then she meets Billy Hartington, the son and heir of the Protestant Duke of Devonshire. As they fall in love, they must grapple with the issues of faith that would keep them apart – Kick is very serious about her Catholic faith and would have to give that up were she to become the Duchess of Devonshire. This book doesn’t follow Kick to the end of her life and when I finished it, I immediately ordered a biography of the extraordinary women at the heart of this book.

Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir of Chatsworth by Paula Byrne. This book was exactly what I hoped it would be. The author was also introduced to Kick by way of Laurence Leamer’s book and tried to find out more about a woman who had kind of been erased from the Kennedy myth because of the circumstances surrounding her death. I don’t want to say anymore really (not that you can’t google it) because I really want you to read this book. Kick seemed like the most wonderful person, everyone who knew her loved her. Her brother Jack never spoke of her after her death, it was too painful. And little brother Bobby named his first child Kathleen but on the condition that she never be called Kick. It’s not a big biography, it reads like a novel about a romantic, rebel intent on following her heart.

WWII Paris

OK so WWII can be one of those genres that people get fatigued by very easily. I’m one of those people who kind of steers clear of these books as they all start to run together after a while. But when I read these two books this year, I knew I had to include them in this post.

Mademoiselle Chanel by CW Gortner. I’ve always found Coco Chanel to be somewhat enigmatic, someone who wasn’t super keen to be well known, to want to live her life in the background. Mademoiselle Chanel was the first time I felt like I read something where I got to know the woman behind the legend. While this book doesn’t focus just on what Chanel was doing during WWII, when I finished it, that was the part that really stuck out for me. Even though it was a fictionalized account of her life, I thought Gortner did an incredible job at getting to the real person, warts and all.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba. I mean, this title kind of says it all no? In some respects, it reminded me of A Train in Winter in that it covers the lives and deaths of a great number of women. But while that book focused on the lives of those women who had been involved in the Resistance, Les Parisiennes looks at those women plus the society women who maybe colluded with the Nazis to continue living their fairly comfortable lives. For a lot of people, Nazi occupation didn’t really change their way of life and that’s something people don’t like to think about outside of Germany.

The Lusitania

I’m not normally one for nautical reading but stories about the Lusitania have such a human element. It was one of the reasons American involvement in the Great War was justified two years later.

Seven Days in May
by Kim Izzo. Sydney and Brooke Sinclair are New York heiresses set to sail for England. While Sydney is heavily involved in suffrage and women’s causes (the novel opens with her visiting a clinic that helps women who have had illegal abortions), Brooke is engaged to an impoverished English peer. They have no idea that the Lusitania has been targeted by German U-boats when they board for their crossing. Isabel Nelson does have an idea about the fate of the Lusitania. Back in London, Isabel works in a coding unit for the British Admiralty. Her work with codes and cyphers means she is privy to secrets around the true cost of the war. The novel follows all of them over the course of the seven days in May that will change the trajectory of history. Izzo does an incredible job recreating the atmosphere on board the ship and the eventual sinking, peppering the novel with real life stories of those who were on board. If memory serves, I believe she has a family connection to someone that was actually on the ship.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. Here is my annual plea for people to read books by Erik Larson: Guys. If you have not read anything by Erik Larson, you need to. Dead Wake covers the last crossing of the Lusitania in heart breaking detail. Larson has put together a timeline down to the minute. I read this a while ago but I remember that I read the whole thing in one day. I could not put it down. It doesn’t read like nonfiction (Larson’s work never does) and I couldn’t believe that what I was reading actually happened. I spent a long time after finishing this book googling the things he wrote about.

So those are mine. Which book recently sent you on a quest for more information?