Monday, 30 July 2012

A Montmaravian Update

I discovered shortly after posting my review of the first two FitzOsborne books, that Michelle Cooper is unfortunately not published in Britain.  Thus, the third book in the trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War isn't going to be available in Britain any time soon.  So, I've ordered it up from Australia from Gleebooks of Sydney.  (Michelle Cooper has put together a handy guide on how to order her books from North America and Europe here.)  Now I just need to be patient.

All this reminds me of a time, several years ago, when I ordered books and CDs from overseas with much more regularity.  I think the last book I ordered from Australia was Alison Croggon's The Singing, the fantastic last book in her Pellinor quartet.  I also used to order up CDs from the British and (at least once) German Amazon websites, back in the days when I couldn't get my favourite European metal albums in brick-and-mortar CD stores or from iTunes.  Thankfully, iTunes seems to cover all the music I enjoy now.

In retrospect, those were probably rather expensive undertakings.  But I was a book and music obsessed undergraduate with disposable income then.

I should mention that if you are in the UK, you can download the Kindle edition of The FitzOsbornes at War for about £10.  (It's about twice that to order a hard copy from Oz).  However, I'm a huge codex fancier and I already have the first two books and why would I want to ruin a complete, matching set?  So, no ebooks for me.  Not any time soon at least.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Review: Books One and Two of The Montmaray Journals

Australian edition
I've just finished reading two fantastic books: Michelle Cooper's A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile.  Happily for me, The Montmaray Journals are a trilogy, so there's also The FitzOsbornes at War to read.  I'm dying to find out what happens to my new favourite fictional family.  Updated:  As I've discovered today that Michelle Cooper does not have a UK publisher, I'll be ordering the third book from Australia.  The third book comes out in the US/Canada in October.

A Brief History of Montmaray is the journal of the sixteen-year-old Princess Sophia FitzOsborne of Montmaray, a tiny island located in the Bay of Biscay, founded in the 16th century by an Cornish aristocrat who fled England after an affair with Katherine Howard (Henry VIII's fifth wife).  There is of course no such island but Cooper has created a fascinating history for this fictional island and interweaves it with real history (the island helped fight off the Spanish Armada and the castle's curtain wall boasts a hole from when Napoleon fired on the island).

US edition
From the beginning, this book bears a distinct but pleasant resemblance to Dodie Smith's classic I Capture the Castle.  Sophie lives in the crumbling castle of Montmaray (ahem, fortified house) with her young tomboy sister Henry, her intellectual cousin Veronica, and her mad uncle King John.  She also has an older brother Toby, away at school in England, bankrolled by stern Aunt Charlotte, the only family member with any money.  And she has a terrible crush on the housekeeper's son, Simon Chester.  Though everyone in the family is an HRM or HRH, these characters are not privileged at all - everyone helps clean and cook and take care of their animals.  They're also extremely cut off from the world, with only a dodgy wireless and newspapers from passing ships to keep them informed.

However, when two SS men turn up one day, the seemingly distant Spanish Civil War and the increasing power of the German Nazis begin to have ramifications for Montmaray.  One of the men is a real historical figure, Otta Rahn, who is convinced that the Holy Grail might be located on Montmaray.

Gorgeous US edition
The second book, The FitzOsbornes in Exile follows the family from 1937 to just before the outbreak of the World War Two.  Sophie and her family are now in England, having fled Montmaray (I won't say exactly why, but you can perhaps guess).  All of sudden, they are indeed moving in high society, among Mitfords and Kennedys.  However, the girls especially are no longer able to conduct themselves as they choose, now living under their Aunt Charlotte's authority.

And what Aunt Charlotte wants most of all is to see Sophie, Veronica, and Toby married well, which is problematic, as Veronica is (by society standards) overly intellectual and overly political, which is rather troublesome in the days of Appeasement.  And Toby, the new king of Montmaray, is gay.  Veronica and Sophie don't care, but they are also acutely aware that homosexuality is in fact illegal, so Toby had best not get caught.

This book follows Sophie and her family through three London Seasons, through helping Basque refugee children after the horrific bombing of Guernica, and on their quest to reclaim Montmaray from the Nazis.  The last entry of Sophie's diary in this book is 23 August 1839.  I read the last pages with a sense of dread.  The Germans marched into Poland on 1 September 1839.

US edition
So now I'm burning to find out what will happen to these characters in World War II.  The bombing of London is coming; new opportunities are going to open up for women; and the men will go off to fight.  Simon and Toby have both already signed up for the RAF.

These are fantastic books, especially for anyone interested in the Brideshead Revisited/interwar era and stories of crumbling aristocratic, eccentric families.  Cooper has obviously done her research, down to very small details (for instance, that von Rippentrop earned the nicknamed von Ribbensnob while ambassador in London).  There is a lot of history and politics and diplomacy, so that these books actually reminded me a bit of the political manoeuvring in Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief books.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Celebratory; Plus, A Word of Warning

Yesterday brought with it some very good news.  My partner Tim has finally found a job.

Ever since we arrived in Oxford back in September, Tim has been looking for work.  We came over here aware that the jobs market in the UK was not as robust as it was in Saskatchewan (how could it be?  Saskatchewan is booming), but we never expected it would take so long or so many job applications (Tim thinks it must be nearing 100) to find a job.

So, this is the word of warning bit.  If you, dear reader, you happen to be reading this blog ahead of coming to Oxford as a student (or to the UK in general) and you are bringing your partner with you, please know that the jobs market here is extraordinarily competitive at the moment, especially for young people.  The number that keeps being touted is 20% youth unemployment (!).  Also, Oxford seems to be filled to bursting with people with multiple degrees looking for jobs.  Several of the jobs Tim applied for had lines in their regrets letters to the effect of 'We had more applications than we had ever expected...'  One entry-level job ended up with 240 applications.  One, two-days-a-week research position went to someone with two PhDs.

So, begin searching early.  Apply widely - part-time jobs, temporary positions, etc.  Get on with a recruiting agency.  And hope for the best.  I know other graduate students and their partners who are having a great deal of trouble at the moment.

Tim's quite looking forward to his new job, which is happily full-time and with the university, so now he too can have free access to the Bodleian, the colleges, and the Botanic Garden.  It will be strange not having him at home all the time.  Hopefully his working regular hours will encourage me to research and write on more regular hours, leaving evenings and weekends mostly free.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Working in the Library

Somehow these last few days, I've hit upon a working routine that seems to be going quite well.  For the first time all year, I've started working in my college's beautiful Victorian library.  I think I was afraid before that I would take a table away from some poor stressed undergraduate while term was on.  In any case, now the library is all but empty and usually peopled by fellow graduate students, grinding away on their theses.  Yesterday, there were four of us, a political theorist, a geographer, a medievalist, and me, each happily encamped at one of the (apparently still original) oak tables, each in his or her own bay of the library.  I seem to be sitting at the end of the classics section and by the beginning of literary theory.  It's nice to have a work space that feels like your own.

I've only been working on Chapter Two in the library for the last week, so perhaps psychologically it has clicked that when I'm sitting at my nice oak table, I should be planning and writing about silver fork novels and dandies.

During my Master's degree, all of us English grad students had offices on two floors of the main humanities library.  It was great - first of all, you had your own space: a place to surreptitiously nap, a place to store books and notes and perhaps coax potted plants into liveliness, and a place to stash life-giving snacks.  The other joy of this set up was the ability to wander about when bored and bother your fellow students.  I found it was really useful to talk to other people who were having the same problems working or writing or researching.  Research can be lonely; human contact is hugely beneficial.

Working in the college library has allowed me a similar degree of socialising with my fellow students, which has been wonderful.  Because there are no university-related seminars or lectures running over the long vacation (which is indeed very long - term doesn't start again until the beginning of October) I had been wondering if I was going to wither away for lack of seeing anyone I knew.  Crisis averted!

The other plus to looking in the library is that if you need a little mental break while your unconscious figures out the details of the paragraph you're agonising over, you can gaze up at the lovely painted tiles on the ceiling.  (Pictured above - can you spot the boss of the Green Man?)

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Music of Trinity Term 2012

This is possibly a silly series to have running on a blog, but alas, I've started and I don't know how to stop.  Without further ado, music I listened to obsessively in Trinity Term 2012.

1) Lana Del Rey, "Blue Jeans".  I saw the music video for this on a random afternoon in the Mansfield MCR and for some reason, fell for it, even if it does have a rapped section.  (Not a hip hop fan, not even a little bit).  This was my soundtrack for the end of the Easter vac and the beginning of Trinity.  I will in particular always remember listening to this song the day I hopped up to London and saw the Westminster Cathedral for the first time and went to Teri Terry's book launch for Slated (a great YA dystopia, by the way, and coming out in North America next year).

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Thoughts on Going Home

Somehow, I've managed to amass two homes (or possibly three).

We went home to Saskatchewan for the first time since moving to the UK at the end of June and stayed for two weeks.  We both wondered if it would feel strange to go "home" and see our families, friends, and old haunts again after having been in a different country for nine months.  For the first time, I really felt like an Adult Child, making the run back home.

Before moving over here, Tim and I been out of our respective familial nests for two years and had got pretty used to the weekly-ish Sunday dinner routine.  Going to my parents' involved dinner, dessert, and depending on the time of year Mad Men, Masterpiece Theatre, or Inspector Lewis.  (Also, Apollo 13, Remember the Titans, and The Bourne Identity, all of which Dad had practically memorized as they played disproportionately on TV.)  Dinners at Tim's parents' sometimes involved backyard fires.

But we had never left for an extended period of time and come back again.  Surprisingly, this did not feel at all strange, except in its non-strangeness.  We spent a week with each set of parents (happily located in the same city), visited many friends and relatives and did "Saskatoon" things.

Wandering around the University of Saskatchewan campus, which always looks its best in the summer...

 Going to the Jazz Festival

 Popping in and out of shops on Broadway

And, a first for me, canoeing down the river.  NB: I did not in fact do any canoeing.  But I was in the canoe and had a great view of the river valley.

And it was while I was doing all these home things in Saskatoon that I realized Oxford has actually become "home" too.  I would catch myself saying, "At home, the undergraduates have left but the city has been flooded with tourists" or "At home, wine is incredibly cheap and housing is shockingly expensive."  It was strange to think that my hometown of 24 years and Oxford, where my residence is necessarily more transitory, are both home.

And then there is a third home, which isn't so easy to visit.  A lovely basement suite near the university that was home for two years but which we can't revisit, well, because different people live there now and a break and enter would probably have to be involved.  That home will always be special because it was the first one Tim and I shared together.  It was full of our furniture, our books; we were allowed to put pictures up on the walls.  When we first moved into our little university housing flat in Oxford, it had felt rather temporary and not quite ours.  I had forgotten that feeling until we got back from our trip home to Saskatchewan.  This flat will never feel as much like home as our last place.  Sadly, the best we can do to revisit that good old basement suite is watch the video we took before we moved and spy on the yard while driving slowly down the back alleyway (sadly, I don't think the garden's been kept up this year, though I did see that our chives were thriving!)

I discovered in the last days of our trip that two weeks wasn't quite enough and for one evening in particular, really felt quite sad to be going home to Oxford, especially since we don't have plans to go back home to Canada again for another year or so.  But now we're back and slowly getting over our post-travel jet lag (and accompanying flus), I'm happy to get back to work and to make the most of what Oxford and the UK have to offer.

So, two (or three) homes.  I'm sure we will rack up quite a few more before all of this is over, what with the academic life and all that.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Micro Update

I'm still here.  Since last blogging, my first three terms at Oxford have come to an end, I've been home and come back again, and the weather has remained painfully unsummery.

Currently, I'm fighting off jet lag and a cold and working on finishing off Chapter Two.  More to come!