Review: Death Comes To Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Random House. 2011. Personal copy. Vacation reads — a non-teen book for your reading pleasure over the holiday weekend.

The Plot: A murder mystery set several years after the events of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The murder takes place at the Darcy estate, and it’s up to Darcy and assorted friends and family to solve it.

The Good: I have to be honest: I was so looking forward to this book, and was disappointed.

One of the reasons I love fanfiction is because it does things like this: it asks, what if Elizabeth and Darcy had to solve a mystery? And bonus: written by P.D. James! Immediately in my head there were images of Elizabeth and Darcy being an Austen inspired Nick and Nora, or Booth and Bones, or, well, you get the picture.

What happened? Death Comes to Pemberley became the classic case of not being the book I wanted it to be. And, unfortunately for the book, I could not get to the point to read it as the book that it was.

The main characters were not the way I imagined them. After the initial fun of seeing just where James put them in life, I didn’t much care for them. They seemed off, from my memory and my hopes for them. Where Colonel Fitzwilliam ended up disappointed me to the extent I didn’t find it believable. Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t get enough time together; I was in Darcy’s head too much, Elizabeth’s too little. Darcy — well, it seemed like Darcy was patting himself on the back a bit too much for marrying down in marrying Elizabeth.

The historical aspects of the novel were spot on. James wrote in the style of the novel, which while it made sense, didn’t make an easy read. Elizabeth and Darcy have a couple of children, and I liked how that was handled. The murder, or, rather, the death, involves Wickham (of course, because WICKHAM) and I found this version of Wickham perplexing. Or, rather, Darcy and others view of Wickham. Despite Wickhams’ track record, there was a “well of course Wickham cannot be a murderer because he’s not that type of person.” Told over and over. To be fair, I think Darcy’s attitude towards Wickham was time period appropriate. But just because people then had a certain view and prejudice about people doesn’t mean they were right.

While I didn’t like certain aspects of Death Comes to Pemberley, I did like the exploration of criminal law at the time. It was fascinating, especially to this former lawyer. For me, Death Comes to Pemberley worked better as a historical fiction novel about the criminal justice system of the time than as a mystery.

So, why include this if I was disappointed? Well, not all readers were. And I wanted to show that I don’t love everything I read. And you may feel differently. And, because, well, despite not loving the book I’m still intrigued enough to be looking forward to the BBC/PBS miniseries based on the book.

Did you read Death Comes to Pemberley? Am I being too tough on it?

Other reviews: The New York Times; AustenProse; SonderBooks.


Review: Bossypants

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint of Little, Brown. 2011. Audiobook narrated by Tina Fey (Little, Brown 2011). Listened to audiobook, borrowed from the library. Vacation reads (aka, when I talk about books for grownups and post them before holidays. St. Patrick’s Day counts.)

It’s About: Tina Fey writes about her life.

The Good: Tina Fey writes about her life. Or, rather, in this case because it’s an audiobook, Tina Fey talks about her life, so it was like I was carpooling with Tina Fey for a week and she never shut up and it was AWESOME.

It’s Tina Fey’s book, goshdarnit, so she writes what she wants to — about different things in her life, primarily about her career but also some personal anecdotes as well. This is not a linear autobiography, but rather a story of a journey to being the creator and star of 30 Rock.

So, yes, this is funny; and it shows the path to where she is now. You want some laughs, you want to find out how she got into the TV business, you’ll enjoy this book.

I wasn’t going to read this book; oh, yes, I appreciate Tina Fey’s work, but it’s not like I was a fangirl. Then Sophie Brookover told me I had to read this, not just read but listen to Bossypants, because of what Tina Fey says about gender and being a working woman and working hard and being accomplished and sexism. And, well, when Sophie tells you to something, you do it.

And now I am a fangirl. Because yes, Tina Fey is funny and I laughed myself silly but even better, Tina Fey is smart and observant and knows how to explain just what is wrong and why and what to do about it, about work and life and feminism and careers and everything. And much as I loved carpooling with Tina Fey, now I want to buy the book so I can mark it up for all the quotes I’m going to be using forever.

Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.” This, this, this. Who cares. Just do. your. thing.  Note she’s not saying to be quiet, she’s not saying not to do your stuff, she’s saying don’t waste energy on closed ears and don’t let that stop you from your path. Tina Fey (I’m sorry, we’re not friends so I cannot call her Tina) also makes terrific points about women being bosses: not because women are better or smarter or more compassionate but because being the boss means you can do your thing.

And this: ““My unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism, or ageism, or lookism, or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: “Is this person in between me and what I want to do?” If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.” Of course, the trick here is determining whether the person is indeed between me and what I want to do. And note again, the reason to be in charge — to control who you work with. Or who you don’t.

And this, about the falseness and reality of competition: ““This is what I tell young women who ask me for career advice. People are going to try to trick you. To make you feel that you are in competition with one another. “You’re up for a promotion. If they go for a woman, it’ll be between you and Barbara.” Don’t be fooled. You’re not in competition with other women. You’re in competition with everyone.”

And, finally, (and finally only because otherwise I’d be quoting the entire book) when someone talks to you in a way that is demeaning, insulting, or bullying (her context is being called the c-word but I think it works in other areas): “A coworker at SNL dropped an angry c-bomb on me and I had the weirdest reaction. To my surprise, I blurted, “No. You don’t get to call me that. My parents love me. I’m not some Adult Child of an Alcoholic that’s going to take that shit.”

So. Yes. Read this book. And of course it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.


Review: White Devil

White Devil by Justin Evans. HarperCollins. 2011. Personal copy. Part of my Holiday Reads for Grown Up series; and what better book to pick than one that is not just a ghost story, but is a haunted boarding school story?

The Plot: American Andrew Taylor has been sent to an exclusive British boarding school, Harrow, for his final year of schooling. He’s under strict orders from his father not to mess things up like he did at his previous high school.

Harrow is old — and anything old has ghost stories, right?

Things are looking up when Persephone Vine (the only female student at the school) approaches Andrew about playing Byron in a play being written by Piers Fawkes, a poet and Andrew’s housemaster.

Then Andrew finds the body of a fellow student. One of the few who had been friendly to the new American. It’s quickly determined to be death from natural causes, but it’s enough for people to give Andrew a wide berth. There are even whispers of drugs.

It’s even more complicated because Andrew something someone — something — no, someone, by the body of the dead student. Who’ll believe him?

As Andrew learns more, he begins to believe that there really is a ghost at Harrow. But if the ghost is real, who is it? What does it have to do with the dead boy? And is anyone else in danger?

The Good: Let’s be honest. Ghosts aren’t scary.

No, really.

What’s scary is what ghosts does. What’s scary is never knowing where a ghost is. The way you can’t trust your eyes or ears. Not knowing what a ghost will or won’t do. Not being able to stop the ghost.

Andrew realizes not just that there is a ghost; not just that it’s killing people; but also, that it has something to do with Andrew. This isn’t something random; and it’s not something that has been going on for ages. It’s something old and dark and dangerous but perhaps scariest of all, it’s about Andrew. People are being hurt because of him. But why? And how? Andrew researches the school’s long past, with the help of Fawkes. Fawkes is haunted by something entirely different. As a young man, he’d shown promise and won awards and accolades for his poetry. Now, he’s a has been, his agent doesn’t return his calls, and his drinking is an open secret. He’s not the best person to handle the sudden unexpected deaths of people around him. What he is, though, is the best person Andrew has, and one of the few people Andrew can trust. And yes, this was scary and full of tension but I couldn’t help but love when Andrew starts looking into the history of the school and doing some in-depth research and reading original sources.

I have a bit of a soft spot for underdogs: Andrew, Fawkes, and Persephone are all underdogs. The lone American, the drunk, the girl. One of my favorite types of tragedies is the underdog so scarred that he becomes the villain. This is what happened here with the ghost — it is love turned to hate, want turned to destruction.

So — you have a ghost. You have a ghost who is killing people. You figure out who and why. And it’s all super scary and reading with one eyed closed. And now comes the real problem: can you stop the ghost?

This book was super scary; and it became even creepier when I read at the author’s website that Harrow is a real school. And while I don’t want to give away the ending, it was unexpected yet perfect and had me putting down the book because I couldn’t believe it and pacing around the room then picking it up again.

Other reviews: New York Times review; Jenn’s Bookshelves; S. Krishna’s Books; Jenny’s Books.

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton, a member of Penguin Group USA. 2011. Personal copy. Companion to Anna and the French Kiss.

The Plot: Seventeen year old Dolores “Lola” Nolan has a pretty good life. Her two dads, Nathan and Andy, are super supportive even if they are over protective and a bit stricter than other people’s parents. Lola has a terrific best friend, Lindsey; a hot, rocker boyfriend, Max; a job she likes; and a passion — clothes and costume design — that she wears everyday.

Then HE moves back in next door. Cricket, the boy next door. Who broke her heart years ago and moved away. Now she has to see him every day. Lola begins to reluctantly acknowledge that she still may have feelings for Cricket. What about her boyfriend, Max? What about her future plans?

The Good: Lola and the Boy Next Door is another terrific teen romance from Stephanie Perkins. It’s a companion to Anna and the French Kiss; more about that later. And, just to be clear, as the title promises, the romance is between Lola and her next door neighbor, Cricket.

Lola’s boyfriend at the start of the book is Max, and Max is an appealing boyfriend on paper. Look a little deeper, though, and something seems off. What I love is how Perkins, who tells this from Lola’s perspective, has the reader come to the realization along with Lola that Max is not all that and a bag of chips. This is not a book where from the first page I wanted to say, “Lola, what are you thinking?” Yes, Max is older, 22. Yes, he’s the musician to her high school student. But, it shows Max going along with all the rules her parents have put in place because of the age difference, including a weekly Sunday Brunch. It’s only as time goes by that the reader — and Lola — discovers that Max isn’t happy about that, not at all.

I know some people may be thinking “triangle! cheating!” As with Anna and the French Kiss, Perkins handles this aspect very gracefully and respectfully, and I won’t reveal all. Lola and the Boy Next Door addresses some complex emotions: having feelings for two different people; trying to sort out what one really feels versus what one wants to feels; and learning how to read a situation. (All I’ll say is one good lesson to learn: if your best friend doesn’t get along with your boyfriend, take that seriously and don’t dismiss it.)

Because of Lola’s anger from what happened a few years back, and because of her current boyfriend, Max, Lola and Cricket’s relationship progresses slowly. A friendship is discovered, or, rather, rediscovered, and here, also, the contrast between Cricket and Max is made apparent slowly. Another lesson to learn:  not a good sign if your boyfriend doesn’t want to hang out with any of your friends.are

In addition to the fun, sometimes flirty, often awkward, but ultimately hopeful and healthy relationship that develops between Lola and Cricket, the strength of this book is the supporting cast of characters. Anna and St. Clair appear, and they are just the type of couple you’d hope they’d be.

Cricket is as fashion-aware as Lola is (did I mention that Lola’s mantra is “I don’t believe in fashion, I believe in costume“?) Lola doesn’t just read fashion magazines and buy clothes; she makes her own clothes. I’m not a fashion person, but I adored the descriptions of Lola’s clothes and how she basically wore her heart, her mind, her soul on her sleeve. Whether whimsical or depressed, her outside reflects her character.

Cricket’s sister, Calliope, is an Olympic level figure skater, and that’s not just some throwaway make her interesting tidbit. The practice, expense, and dedication that level of athletic training requires of the whole family is shown; and  yes, it ends up tying back to Lola herself.

Lola’s family is complicated. Not because she has two dads. Lola references their strictness, and it’s clear they don’t like Max but also don’t want to do anything that pushes Lola away and pushes her towards Max. They are supporting and loving. What is complicated is that her biological mother is the sister of one of her father’s.

As with Paris in Anna, place matters: here, it is San Francisco. Instead of someone discovering a city, it’s about a girl whose city is her place, who knows that city better than she knows herself. And given what Lola needs to realize about herself, Max, and Cricket, that’s quite true.

Other reviews: Librarian by Day; Reading Rants; GalleySmith; Youth Services Corner.

Review: Jasper Jones

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: 1965 Australia. Charlie Bucktin, 13, is reading a book on a hot summer night when there is a knock on his window. It is Jasper Jones, the town “bad boy,” and he needs Charlie’s help. Charlie climbs out the window, not realizing he is leaving his childhood behind. Jasper’s secret shakes Charlie, yes; and it’s the beginning of Charlie looking at his town, his world, his family and friends with new eyes and seeing what’s hidden.

The Good: A classic coming of age, as Charlie leaves childhood behind him. I don’t want to say all that Charlie discovers, slowly; part of the process for the reader is going with Charlie on that journey. It all begins with Jasper knocking on Charlie’s window, forcing Charlie to leave behind the safety of his books and his parents’ home. Charlie’s awareness doesn’t happen all at once; and some things (the racism against his best friend for being Vietnamese) aren’t new to him. What is new is the way he looks at the world.

Charlie’s world is that of Australia about forty years ago. Jasper Jones creates a strong sense of place and time. A time where kids and teens have certain freedoms to explore and roam. A time when people’s casual and thoughtless and cruel racism and prejudices were open. In many ways, a smaller world than today. Charlie’s father tries to expand his son’s world in the only way his father knows, books. Those books are not the real world, but they prepare Charlie for the real world he realizes is all around him after Jasper knocks at his window.

Based on what Jasper shows Charlie, what he tells him, Charlie becomes a bit obsessed with those who inflict evil and those who let evil happen. He researches true crime in the library, including such then-current cases as Eric Cooke and Gertrude Baniszewski. What is “evil”? Why do people act, or not act?

I reread this book almost immediately; enjoying even more the layered story telling, the strong setting, the varied cast of characters. There is a magnificent chapter about a cricket game, and even though I know less than nothing about cricket, I was on the edge of my seat. There is also a romance. But, most importantly, there is Charlie.

Confession: I didn’t like this book at first. No, really. It was a DNF back in January. For a few reasons, it just didn’t “click” with me. But. But, people I knew and respected had picked this for a Printz Honor. I put it aside, knowing I’d take a second crack at it. And the second time, everything came together and this book really worked for me. Why? What had changed? I’m not sure; I wasn’t even going to mention it, except I think it’s important to note that how a reader reads a book can change. My first read focused on the character of Jasper (for various reasons, not a fan at first) and the mystery element (as a mystery-lover, I guessed the big mystery early on). My second read, I put these aside. I saw the Jasper/Huck Finn connections (one of the authors Charlie and his father read is Mark Twain), which made me appreciate what was happening with Jasper. And, I realized that this wasn’t a mystery book; or, rather, it didn’t matter whether I guessed things about it.

And, that’s all it took. A change of time, a different perspective, and a DNF becomes a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at Kirkus blog; Professor Nana; Guys Lit Wire; and Jasper Jones Reading Guide.

Review: Okay For Now

Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2011. My review of the ARC. Audiobook: Listening Library, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group. Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe. 2011. Listened from copy from publisher.

The Plot: The late 1960s. Doug Swieteck’s father has moved his family to stupid Marysville in upstate New York. Doug is less than happy about this, and it doesn’t help that the locals see Doug and his older brother as thugs. As his eighth grade year progresses, Doug connects with the community around him: the librarian who shows him the plates of John James Audubon’s Birds of America; Lil Spicer, who offers him a cold coke and friendship; Mr. Spicer, who gives Doug a job delivering groceries that lets more people into Doug’s life.

Marysville may not be so stupid; Doug and his brother may not be thugs; and sometimes it’s enough that things are okay for now. “For now” keeps shifting through the book, through good times and bad: for every teacher who sees an easy target in the kid from the wrong side of the tracks, there is a teacher who sees Doug’s potential. His brother may come home from Vietnam with injuries, true; but he came home. It’s okay for now.

The Good: My review from 2011 says all that is good with Okay for Now. Listening to the audiobook emphasised all the strengths. Doug is a wonderful character, and Lincoln Hoppe perfectly captures his nuances and attitude. Over and over, I wanted to go into the pages of Okay for Now and rescue Doug. Rescue him from bullying teachers and abusive and neglectful family; luckily for Doug, he can take care of himself. It isn’t easy; the book begins with Doug having a huge chip on his shoulder. But, slowly, he lets people in and things change for the better.

I marveled at the wonderful structure of Okay for Now. Doug’s imagination is captured by the Audobon birds; he interprets what he sees based on his own life. Is a mother bird worried for her children? Or happy for them? He learns to draw, using the plates and friendly, knowledgeable librarian as guides. This expands his world, and Doug decides on a mission. Marysville has sold plates from the book; Doug will track them down and recover him. He may not be able to make his family whole, but he’ll make this book whole. Of course, along the way, Doug does make his life, including his family, whole. I just love the craft of this.

How reliable is Doug? That’s something I struggled with both in reading and listening. There are some things that I think he is oversensitive about, and I don’t think people are always as mean or rude or dismissive about him as he thinks. I think he both misinterprets things, but also believes some things are about him when they are not. For example, the teacher may simply not be calling on him. Or someone on his delivery route may be a bit distracted so not as attentive. It’s clear that when things are up for Doug, he’s up and sees the world in a positive light; but when things are down, it’s all dark and gray and rainclouds. Hoppe’s narration emphasizes this. As a matter of fact, this time around I was also more understanding of people like Coach Reed, because I’m not sure if Doug was always accurate about how Reed was treating him.

What didn’t change was my view towards Doug’s parents. Doug sees his mother as a lovely saint; and because Doug’s father’s treatment of his children was clearly not Doug misreading a situation, I just could not accept her passive acceptance of the situation. I kept getting angry as I listened. Clearly, though, that is more about me as a reader than the book itself.

But back to happy thoughts: there is a lot of humor in here! And some of it are in type jokes directed at the modern reader, such as a class discussion that ends with everyone agreeing that an actor could never become president.

Some great discussion about this title from Heavy Medal; reviews from Abby the Librarian; 100 Scope Notes.

Review: Summer in the City

Summer in the City by Candace Bushnell. Sequel to The Carrie Diaries (2010). Balzer & Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Summer in the City picks up right where The Carrie Diaries left off: seventeen year old Carrie Bradshaw is in New York City for a summer writing program. She’s just been mugged and has called the only number she has, a cousin of a semi-friend. Carrie goes with Samantha Jones to a party, and thus begins Carrie’s introduction to New York City in the 1980s.

The Good: If The Carrie Diaries was about Carrie becoming a writer, Summer in the City is about Carrie becoming a New Yorker. Her pocketbook may have been stolen within her first half hour in New York, but Carrie doesn’t hold that against the city. Instead, she plunges into life in the city in a way that is fearless, admirable, bold, and, at times, risky.

Carrie says yes to everything, it seems, accepting any invitation, going to any party, embracing life. She knows very few people in New York, so, also, when it comes to people (whether its friends or potential love interests) she plunges forward, following up on even the most casual “call me.” Carrie builds a family around her, a family of friends, because she isn’t afraid. Or, rather, she is afraid: afraid of being just like everyone else. Afraid of returning home a failure. Afraid of time ticking relentlessly by.

Carrie only has a few months before she has to leave for her freshman year at Brown, and, to be honest, she’s more interested in enjoying the city than in her writing. As time ticks down on her limited time, she concentrates more on her writing, hoping that if she writes a memorable play it will convince her father to let her forgo Brown and instead stay in the city.

As I mentioned in my review of The Carie Diaries, this is a prequel to the book, not the HBO series and movies. At Salon, a 1996 review reminds readers what the original Sex and The City book (not movie) was about. Yes, I read Summer in the City looking for references to Sex and the City — but the book.

Carrie is just out of high school, and her summer is magical; New York City is her playground, and she plays. She has disappointments and heartbreak, yes, but we all know that Carrie will become a New Yorker. It’s fun to see just how that happens.

Enjoy this series? The CW has picked it up as a TV series for the fall. 

Other reviews: Reading Rants; EW’s Shelf Life Author Interview.

Review: Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Review copies from publisher. Listened to audio. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Plot: One minute, Alex is hiking, trying to figure out her future and deal with her past. Sounds typical for a seventeen year old, but her future is complicated by an inoperable brain tumor and her past by the death of her parents four years before.

An electromagnetic pulse changes that.

Suddenly, the world changes.

No electronics are working. Alex find herself responsible for Ellie, an angry eight year old who just saw her grandfather die from the pulse. At first, they think the dangers they face are low supplies, a rough trek to the ranger’s station, and wild dogs.

Then they return into two teenagers. Unlike Alex and Ellie, these kids are changed. They eat flesh. Human flesh.

Alex and Ellie find another survivor, Tom, who hasn’t changed, and band together to figure out what happened and what to do next. Along the way, the encounter other survivors and discover that most teens have become wild flesh-eaters. In response, the surviving seniors are not welcoming towards kids they suspect may change any moment.

Should they head to a big city? Somewhere with less people? Would a military base be safe? Or have any towns survived?

Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, which appears to offer safety. She discovers flesh-eating teens and armed bandits aren’t the only things to worry about.

The Good: So many things!

There is Alex. Her father was a police officer; her mother, a doctor; and both enjoyed camping. The type of camping that meant teaching their only daughter survivalist-type skills: she knows how to make a debris shelter, what to do to make water drinkable, can read maps and knows her way around a gun. If anyone can survive the end of the world as we know it, it’s Alex.

One of the things I liked about at Alex? At times, I didn’t like her. She’s in a hurt, bitter, selfish place at the beginning of the story. Her parents are dead, she’s taken their ashes, her own future is bleak because of the brain tumor, she’s gone through years of treatment, she doesn’t even have a sense of smell anymore. There is more than a hint that she brought her father’s gun with her for more than protection.

When the pulse happens, Alex is thinking of herself, not Ellie, and acts accordingly. Keep in mind, at this point Ellie is challenging her fear, anger and grief into stubborness and whining. In short: she’s a brat. Honestly? At this stage, Alex is so caught up in herself that she doesn’t handle the situation well. That’s OK; she’s only seventeen. An important part of the story is Alex’s own progress from an understandably self-centered teen to someone who thinks about others. It’ s not just that, of course. Whether by her own hand or not, Alex was preparing for death. Now, she’s fighting to stay alive/

Alex and Ellie meet Tom, a young soldier on leave. The situation means Alex begins to think about others: hey, there’s nothing like fighting for survival to bond people together.

Alex’s brain tumor had affected her physically. After the pulse? Those symptoms go away. Not only can she smell; she has a super sense of smell. Is that why she wasn’t turned into a flesh-eater? Why wasn’t Tom? Alex tries to figure it out, based on what she knows of the handful of teens who didn’t change. Tom had nightmares from his time in the middle east; does that mean anything?

About halfway through, the book changes from one of adventurist survival to a different type of survival. Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, a place that has survived fairly intact and safe. She finds out it’s not as safe as it appears to be. I’ll be honest, for some reason I had an easier time believing in the flesh-eating teens than I did in Rule. I understand that society would change because of the pulse, the deaths, the flesh eaters; but it seems like Rule had always been — different. Controlled by a handful of families. Religious, but not quite like any traditional religion. It didn’t help that the story is told from Alex’s point of view, so all I know about Rule is what Alex knows or what she guesses.

The narration is terrific! Kellgren kept me on the edge of my seat. I listen to audiobooks during my commute (roughly an hour each way), and sometimes I had to just sit for a few minutes to calm down.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. It ends with a shocking reveal and a “how are you going to get out of this one” cliffhanger. I have a feeling that some of the things that frustrate or confuse me about Rule will be revealed. I can’t wait to read the next book!

Other reviews: Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith Joint Discussion; S. Krishna’s Books; Stacked; The Book Smugglers

Review: The FitzOsbornes in Exile

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the Montmaray Journals, Book II by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers. 2011. Review copy from publisher. Sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray; the final book is The FitzOsbornes at War. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie FitzOsborne and the rest of the royal family (cousin Veronica, 18; brother Toby, 18; sister Henrietta, 11; and friend/possible illegitimate cousin, Simon, 23) of Montmaray are now safely in England, living with Aunt Charlotte, following the events of A Brief History of Montmaray. In a nutshell: the Germans took over their small island home and the inhabitants of Montmaray fled to England.

England is full of parties and clothes and dances. No one wants to hear about a small island that was violently taken, no one wants to do anything other than remain at peace with the Germans.

The FitzOsbornes have lost their home; they are now royalty in exile. Aunt Charlotte’s good fortune to marry well means, well, they can depend on her large fortune to take care of them. Clothes, good food, servants — all are theirs. But what is the cost? Will they — like Charlotte — simply forget their home and heritage?

The Good:

The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a filler book, in a way, filling the gap between the loss of Montmaray in the first book and World War II. It turns out, of course, for the FitzOsbornes and for Europe, that the time period is hardly filler. Much happens.

A family tree at the front of the book is a helpful catch-up on the characters and their relationships to each other. Other than that, Cooper jumps right into the story. There is very little recap, and this falls under the category “best to read in order,” but primarily to understand the relationships between the characters and what happened that led to the loss of Montmaray.

The Montmaray siblings and cousins are refuges; foreigners in exile. The first half of the book is primarily the adjustment to this. Aunt Charlotte is wealthy, wealthy enough for a country house and a city house, lots of staff, and all the privilege that comes with being both rich and royal (she, herself, is a Princess Royal of Montmaray). Every now and then, Sophie flashes back to their near-poverty existence on Montmaray. It’s own country and monarchy, yes., but it’s a tiny island with little natural resources and a population destroyed by the loss of an entire generation of men during the Great War.

The siblings and cousins all have strong personalities, forged by the self-reliance needed to live on Montmaray as well as the isolation of the island. Veronica, no-nonsense and brilliant, robbed of an education because she’s a girl, who doesn’t allow that stop her. Sophie loves the good food and pretty dresses of her new life, as well as her freedom from drudgery (who wouldn’t?) but no heads are turned to a frivolous life.

The first half of the book is adjustment to Aunt Charlotte’s lifestyle, with Veronica and Sophie being introduced to Society — and failing miserably. Veronica doesn’t believe her only goal in life should be to marry well. Sophie is disappointed with how frivolous and shallow the other girls appear to be and is less than impressed with the young men who are the would-be suitors.

Cooper doesn’t rush the story; just like in real life, things take time and it takes awhile to find one’s footing. Sophie and the others have a new home and country to adjust to, as well as trying to figure out what they can do regain their home from the Germans. They may have titles, but it’s from a powerless nation. They don’t have money and are financially dependent on Aunt Charlotte. With the exception of Simon, who is a commoner with no connections or cash, they are teenagers.

I adore Sophie, as well as Veronica. These two are fantastic! The only reason I’m glad that the laws prohibit Veronica from inheriting is I’m not sure she’d do well with the politics needed to be a ruler; she sure has the knowledge and history and integrity. I’d follow both of them anywhere, in exile or not. Toby — Toby, to be honest, tries my patience. Picture Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited. His chief talent is charm. He charms people well, and I am charmed — until I remember that he is also the King of Montmaray and his carelessness doesn’t just affect him.

The only thing “alternate” about this alternate history is that Montmaray doesn’t exist. Cooper weaves the fictional Montmaray and FitzOsbornes into the real events of 1937 to 1939. It’s not just people — though, that happens, also, with Sophie meeting young Kathleen Kennedy. It’s also more nuanced, such as considering how the German occupation of Montmaray was practice for invasion.

War is coming, the reader knows this; but it’s still fun to escape into the gaiety and parties, as Sophie does, with the Upstairs/Downstairs/Downton Abbey vibe.

Montmaray and its peoples are so real to me that I worry, worry not just how they will survive the war years but also what will happen with Montmaray. Toby is king, and he’s gay. I love how accepting his family is, but this means there is no heir, right? Unless a son of one of the princesses can inherit? But even if they can, Montmaray was dying before it was lost. The FitzOsbornes are impressive, yet, but how can they revive this island?

I guess the fact that I’m concerned about a fictional island is a big giveaway: this is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Shelf Elf; Someday My Printz Will Come; whatch ya reading.

Review: The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher. Sequel to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling.

The Plot: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling introduced readers to fifteen year old Miss Penelope Lumley, intrepid governess and recent graduate of  the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, along with her three young charges, the Incorrigibles. The three children had been raised by wolves (no, really) and Miss Lumley was hired to civilize them and teach them Latin.

Miss Lumley and young Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia now venture off to London, armed with a slightly-odd Guide Book. How much trouble can they get into, really? The three children wear their clothes, do their lessons, and only start howling when there is a reason to, such as the moon or a tempting squirrel. That incident at the Christmas ball — well, best not talked about, right?

It turns out that London has secrets of its own; or, rather, is an occasion for Penelope and her three charges to discover secrets about themselves.

 The Good: This series is so much fun! Penelope is a hoot and a half, especially because half the time she doesn’t quite realize either she or the children are funny. Or maybe she does? Here, from the start, as she begins her discussion with Lady Constance, the young, spoiled, and often ignored wife of the rich Lord Aston: “”Pardon me, Lady Constance,” she said, in the same soothing voice she used to calm the Incorrigibles when they were in the presence of a small, tasty rodent, or during a full moon, or when they had gotten worked up over a particularly thrilling bit of poetry.”

Incorrigible Children falls under the “better to read in order, but doesn’t hurt if you don’t” category. Each book, so far, has a standalone plot: The Hidden Gallery is primarily about the children’s London adventure, just as The Mysterious Howling was about Penelope and the children getting acquainted. However, there is a series mystery going on: the origins of both Penelope and the Incorrigibles. Tantalizing clues are given: after Penelope stops using the school-issued hair “tonic,” her hair color changes to one more resembling that of the three children. One character shows an odd reaction to the new moon.

Part of the brilliance of this series and the writing is just how all-ages it manages to be: Penelope is a teen, and she does have responsibilities appropriate for her age and role as a governess. She takes good care of Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia and does her best to teach them. At other times, she acts younger, such as with her continuing obsession with the Giddy-Yap, Rainbow! series about the pony-crazed Edith-Anne. This makes Penelope the perfect main character for kids (including tweens or younger teens) who want to read about teenagers. And even those who may find Penelope too young won’t find the narrator too young. The humor is the type that works on two levels, like a great kid’s movie: funny enough for those who don’t get the jokes, even funnier for those who do. There is a play on words with matador/minotaur/metaphor that was brilliant.

The Incorrigibles in London had me laughing out loud. Penelope’s former teacher and mentor, Miss Mortimer, sends her Hixby’s Lavishly Illustrated Guide to London: Complete with Historical Reference, Architectural Significance, and Literary Allusions. It is howling good fun, especially as the illustrations are all of wildflower meadows and snowcapped mountain peaks. Is it good as a guide, though, especially when the directions to the zoo are “The way to the zoo your nose will tell, [f]or elephants are not hard to smell“? As for any more plot detail, well, part of the fun is seeing the trouble that these four manage to get into, despite the best intentions.

And did I mention the pirates? Oh yes, pirates.

I’m happy I waited to read Book 2 until Book 3 came out, because now I can dive right into The Unseen Guest.

Other reviews: Emily Reads; Book Nut; Eva’s Book Addiction.