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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Montmaray Journals Books 1 and 2, by Michelle Cooper. Sydney, Random House, 2010

The first of these two books, A Brief History of Montmaray, came out in 2008, and did very well, winning the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 2009. This is now out in a new cover, with its sequel, The FitzOsbornes in Exile.

Sophie FitzOsborne, who narrates these stories in a journal, is a princess. She even lives in a castle. The only problem is, it's not much of a castle; her home is crumbling away and the tiny island kingdom her family rules has lost most of its subjects, both to emigration and to the Great War. She lives with her intellectual cousin Veronica, who is writing a history of the kingdom, her little sister Henry (short for Henrietta), Henry and Sophie's insane uncle, King John, who never leaves his room these days, and a housekeeper, Rebecca. Sophie's brother, Toby, heir to the throne, is off at school in England The royal family's lives are kept busy with housework and milking the goat and all their news from the outside world comes in a Basque ship now and then.

The year, in the first book, is 1936, and there is a hint that war might be coming. When a group of Nazis arrives, led by a scholar who really believes the Holy Grail might be somewhere in the crumbling cvastle of Montmaray, their lives change for the worse...

With a sequel called The FitzOsbornes In Exile, it's impossible to avoid spoilers. Sophie and her family have been forced to flee Montmaray for England, where they are now living with Aunt Charlotte, a Montmaray princess who married a wealthy commoner and left her home twenty years ago. Uncle Arthur is now dead, but his money lives on. As a result, ironically, the princesses are able to live like royalty for the first time in their lives. Of course, Aunt Charlotte is setting up their debuts, determined to get Sophie and Veronica husbands. It doesn't help that Veronica is intelligent and left-wing in her politics. She embarrasses her aunt at every dinner party by asking questions that the likes of Oswald Mosley don't want to hear. It helps even less that Veronica is more or less going out with a Jewish left-wing intellectual, her former tutor.This is the era of Neville Chamberlain and other politicians who think Hitler is the best thing that ever happened to Germany and are determined to make peace at any cost. Because the girls are royalty, they meet a large number of famous historical figures, while campaigning for help for Montmaray.

But this is the era of appeasement and the British government is not keen to help. The girls might have to find their own solution.

The two books are a delight. They show history from the viewpoint of characters you care about. There's no historical detail of the kind that might turn off young readers. If they're interested, they can pursue some of the history that Sophie mentions in the course of telling about her own life. The Author Notes at the back of both books give them enough information for them to do so. The class conscious society of Britain between the wars is well-presented.

Recommended for girls from about fourteen upwards.

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