Friday, December 21, 2012

What we're reading: Historical fiction

A Brief History of Montmaray
by Michelle Cooper
296 pages
Historical fiction
First book in a series of three
Grades 9 and up
Reviewed by: Melissa

We were going to read this book for 10-12 Book Club in February, but we couldn't track down enough paperback copies, so we went with an alternate choice. Since I read it anyway in anticipation, I will review it here, and you can check it out of the library if you still want to read it but didn't get it for book club!

This book takes place on the fictional island of Montmaray, which is way out of sight of the European continent almost dead center between Great Britain and France, in the Bay of Biscay. This locale gave it a strategic advantage during World War I, when it was a meeting place for negotiations between powerful political allies, but by 1936, when the story opens, the "kingdom" has dwindled to a somewhat pathetic shadow of its former self. As Sophie FitzOsborne, the 16-year-old narrator notes, there are more "royals" on the island than there are subjects: Her crazy uncle, the king, whose mind was damaged in the Great War and who never leaves his room; his daughter, Veronica, bookish head of the household at age 17; Sophie, the niece, whose parents died when she was a child; and Sophie's younger sister, Henry (short for Henrietta), a quirky tomboy. The heir to the throne, Toby, is away at boarding school in England, and the cast is rounded out by the weird housekeeper, whose obsession with caring for the king leaves the girls to cope with the dank, leaking, slowly collapsing castle on their own; and her son, Simon, an aspiring diplomat (but actual office boy) about whom Sophie has a few romantic fantasies. There used to be a village on the island, but the population has dwindled to one loyal fisherman's family, who help with the cleaning and deal with supplying the island from passing ships, and that's it for the cast of characters.

The book is told from Sophie's viewpoint, in the form of a journal, so all the events are tinged with her perceptions and prejudices. For more than half of the book, the journal details and explains life on Montmaray (past and present), and I have to confess it's a little slow and gets bogged down in Sophie's rather self-absorbed musings. If you can hold out for about 140+ pages, though, things finally begin to get exciting: Two Nazi officers--one a scientist seeking the Holy Grail, the other an SS thug--land on the island and take over an empty cottage, and they soon come into conflict with the royal family, with disastrous results. After this it's one exciting, hair-raising adventure after another, until the breathless finale. There are two more books in the series, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and The FitzOsbornes at War, both of which are owned by Burbank Public Library, and both of which received good reviews from other readers (I haven't gone there yet).

This book reminded me so much of another book, although that one doesn't have either the royal aspect or the historical context:
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, which tells the story of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who similarly lives with her oddball family in ever-increasing poverty in a broken-down old castle in England in the 1930s. The book is also written in a journal format with Cassandra as narrator, but I found the writing to be much more clever, and although I did enjoy the historical aspects of Montmaray, Smith's I Capture the Castle is a wonderful, lively romantic story with a lot of wry humor thrown in. I don't know whether to say "if you liked that, then read this," because while I was reading Montmaray, I was thinking it was more than a bit derivative of Smith's book. I guess I'll say that if you like the historical aspect (and wish for sequels!), read the one, and if you like romance (and clever writing), read the other. (I'm a sucker for a good first line, which is: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.") There is also a movie of I Capture the Castle, and it's not bad, but the book is far superior.

Note: Dodie Smith is best known for writing the children's classic, The Hundred and One Dalmatians.

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