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May 3, 2012 / schulerbooks

Schuler Staff Picks — Downton Abbey fans take note!

Some of the swoon-factor over Downton Abbey has died down now that we’re in hiatus between the second and third season, but with the success of the show and  the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, this is a great year for historical fiction set in the early 20th century.

At the beginning of the year I went through a Downton-inspired reading tear that started with Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, a fantastic memoir of how Alfred de Rothschild’s illegitimate daughter Almina married Lord Carnarvon and became lady of Highclere castle, in which Downton Abbey is filmed. (She really did turn the castle into a hospital for wounded soldiers in WWI.)

Now I’d like to give a shout out to two fantastic novels I’ve recently read that will appeal to fans of DA, and fans of sharp, cleverly-plotted historical fiction.

Both titles have been released by HarperCollins in the past few weeks, and both are featured Indienext picks for May. I highly recommend either of them.

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

First up is the second novel by Katherine Howe, author of the NYT-bestselling debut The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Howe stays true to her New England roots (Deliverance Dane largely dealt with the Salem Witch Trials) by setting the book in 1915 Boston. The main portions of the book are told through the perspective of  Sibyl Allston, a high society “spinster” living with her father, but still strongly dominated by the influence of her mother and sister, who both perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Events are set in motion through a dramatic medium (upon whom Sibyl’s mother relied almost religiously); After a particularly intense spiritualism session, the medium gives Sibyl the scrying glass through which she claims to have seen Sibyl’s mother.

Sibyl’s struggles to cope with her family’s upheaval and the unchanging future she sees herself trapped in as a spinster are complicated when her brother is ejected from university with little explanation beyond the new woman he is spending time with — Dovie Whistler, an actress from Los Angeles with a highly questionable reputation.

Howe deftly melds an exploration of high (and low) society lifestyles with supernatural elements as Sibyl begins to see visions in the scrying glass (with the help of a local Opium den). Though some of my favorite sections of the book are actually flashback vignettes of Sibyl’s sister and mother on the Titanic, as well as flashbacks from her father’s time as a youthful sailor in Shanghai.

It’s an ambitious story that kept me rapt til the last page. Well worth reading!

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

The Uninvited Guests (released this week), by British author Sadie Jones,  was recommended to me by our Harper rep as fitting right into the Downton Abbey mood. The book start out as a charming tale of the Torrington’s, an Edwardian family whose estate has been in steady decline. Plans are in place for a dinner party to celebrate elder daughter Emerald’s 20th birthday (complete with 2 dapper potential suitors), but the weekend is thrown into havoc by a train that is derailed nearby, leaving the Torrington’s to shelter the ragged survivors until help can arrive.

The writing in this novel is so smooth and well-styled that before you know it, the charming country-house tale becomes something all-together more chilling, with the author’s literary skill providing surprises on nearly every page. I especially loved the youngest Torrington, 9-year-old Imogen, who spends the evening obsessed with completing — and hiding — her Great Undertaking.

And while you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, can I just say how much I LOVE the cover art for this?!  Give yourself a treat and check it out.

–Whitney, Lansing

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One Comment

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  1. Bosie Douglas / Jun 1 2012 7:42 am

    For the sake of fair play and ensuring public awareness of the full picture of the life and times of Almina Wombwell, 5th Countess of Carnarvon, there is another book to read. A less flattering, but perhaps more accurate account of her NINE DECADES of existence, which includes her terrifying death, is in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, by William Cross, FSA Scot. The same author has two other books on aspects of this lady’s life. ” Lady Carnarvon’s Nursing Homes”, and “The Dustbin Case” – Dennistoun v Dennistoun, the latter being an account of a mud-raking Court case, from 1925, that Lady Almina became embroiled, in connection with her second husband, Lt Colonel Ian Onslow Dennistoun.

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