A Countess Below Stairs


untitled (2)A Countess Below Stairs is a must read for any fan of Downton Abbey.

Anna and her family fled their native Russia during the  Revolution to make a new home in London. Attempts to bring their valuables with them are foiled, leaving them penniless.

Anna takes a job as a housemaid in a grand house. In spite of growing up in a wealthy estate, she is kind and unspoiled. She decides that working downstairs can be a grand adventure. She clings to her copy of The Domestic Servant’s Compendium by Selina Strickland, determined to be the best servant ever.

Rupert is an unlikely Earl. He always assumed his charismatic older brother would inherit Mersham, the family estate. After his brother dies in the first world war, he agrees to be the Earl of Westerholme because his family expects it.

Rupert is engaged to Muriel who nursed him back to health after being wounded in battle. No one can deny that Muriel is beautiful and seems charming. Rupert is really not sure how they came to be engaged.

Muriel espouses an early Nazi philosophy known as Eugenics. She wants to apply the same principles of breeding  racehorses to human reproduction, beautiful people mating with other beautiful people with no room for disease or decay.

Muriel fires one of the footmen because he is too short. She sends the mute servant girl to an institution where she can be with her “own kind of people.” She is distressed when she discovers that Ollie, the flower girl in her wedding, has a limp.

The tone of this novel is light and comical. As a romance, it is fairly predictable. The fun of the novel comes from a wide variety of interesting characters and vivid descriptions. It is clear early on that Anna is lovely and kind, spreading joy to everyone she meets.  Rupert is obviously attracted to Anna but promised to Muriel. Both Rupert and Anna are committed to doing the right thing almost to the point of absurdity.  No one can set up a scene or create characters like Eva Ibbotson. She is a master of vivid imagery.

I first discovered Eva Ibbotson through her children’s books, Journey to the River Sea and The Star of Kazan.  When I found one of her adult books on the library shelves, it looked quite nondescript.  I would never have selected it if I had not known about the author. People say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we all do.

Her books were originally written for an adult audience.  Ibbotson wrote mostly children books in her later years.  Until recently, her adult title were hard to locate.  In 2008, MacMillan publishing has begun marketing her older titles to teens.  They simply changed the covers.  I think both adults and teens will enjoy these chaste romances.

A Countess Below Stairs is sometimes published under the title, The Secret Countess.











Teen Tales of Adventure and Romance

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan begins with the romance of an unlikely couple and turns into a harrowing survival tale.   Readers will find this suspenseful book hard to put down.  Sometimes Sloan’s plots stretch credibility. But I don’t care.  I love her books anyway!

Emily Bell is your all American girl.  Her parents are loving people who want to make a positive mark on their world. Emily plays second string soccer and excels in school. She is curious about people and notices things that others fail to see.

Sam Border has been raised in the worst possible environment.  His dad, Clarence, is a conman and a criminal. They move often to stay away from the Law. Sam takes care of his younger brother, Riddle. He hasn’t been to school since second grade. He and Riddle have learned to be invisible especially during the day. In the afternoons, they emerge from their low rent house and go dumpster diving.

Clarence Border has no redeeming qualities. He knows how to steal and pawn goods. He finds the boys useful;  people are sympathetic to a single dad with two young boys. He has never paid much attention to them but as the boys grow older, he becomes more resentful of his sons. Both guys refuse to steal or engage in any criminal activity making them useless in his eyes.

A series of random meetings bring Emily and Sam together. Emily is fascinated by Sam. He’s not like any guy she’s ever known. He totally misses pop culture references. He’s quiet and humble, a welcome change from the arrogant Bobby Ellis who has had his eyes on Emily for months.

The Bell family begin to realize that Emily is love so they insist that Sam come over for dinner.  Mr. Bell discovers that Sam is a musical prodigy.  It’s not long before Sam and Riddle become a fixture in the Bell household.

It’s scary for Sam who is beginning to realize how strange his life really is. Riddle, Sam’s brother, stands out even more. He’s five years younger and small for his age. He rarely talks and spends most of his free time creating intricate drawings in old phone books.

Mrs. Bell takes an interest in Riddle and manages to get him some asthma medicine. Riddle, who had felt like there was an elephant sitting on him,  begins feeling better and  talking more. He loves helping Mrs. Bell fix supper every night.

The book takes a sinister turn when Clarence Border finds Emily Bell’s cellphone in his son’s pocket. He knew they had been doing laundry a lot. They were also later and later getting back to the house at night. Clarence is very angry about his sons’ secret lives. He vows to seek revenge.

Meanwhile the Bells are clueless about Sam and Riddle.  They don’t know that they live in a moldy house scheduled for demolition on the worst side of town or that their meals often come from trash cans.  When Mr. Bell’s car is vandalized, Sam realizes that he and Riddle are in trouble.

When Sam and Riddle arrive home, Clarence is throwing everything into the trunk and angrily orders them inside.   They are headed again for an unknown destination.

The Border sons are now caught in a life or death spiral.  Clarence has decided that he will make his sons pay.  From this point,  it’s a wild ride for the brothers who must not only deal with Clarence’s wrath but also navigate a remote wilderness without supplies or assistance.

Just Call My Name, also based on a song by The Jackson Five, is the sequel. The characters are mostly the same.  The plot has a similar structure. This time it is Emily and her friend, Destiny who are kidnapped and must fight for their survival.

I highly recommend these books for middle school and above.   These titles are light reading at its best.