Thursday, 23 August 2012

Review: The FitzOsbornes at War, by Michelle Cooper

Australian edition
Having thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile (reviewed here), I was very keen to read the final book, The FitzOsbornes at War.

Because Michelle Cooper unfortunately does not have a British publisher, I ordered up the book from Gleebooks in Australia.  I was told the book would arrive in 10-15 working days.  It showed up much faster than that, arriving just under a week later!  And then I read it in about 24 hours.  Cooper uses a lovely, clear prose style for Princess Sophia's journal, so that the novels are all very fast reads.

At the end of Book Two, which leaves the royal FitzOsborne family (Sophia, her brother Toby and sister Henry, plus cousin Veronica and half-cousin Simon) just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  The three things most on my mind when I finished were: 1) What would happen to Toby and Simon, who had already signed up for the RAF, 2) What opportunities would become available for the girls, whose London lives in Book Two had consisted in large part of their aunt trying to make proper aristocratic marriage matches for them, and 3) Would any of the FitzOsbornes, all well-drawn, sympathetic characters, die in the war?

US edition - out October 2012
This third Montmaray book, like its forbears, combines fictional characters and their equally fictional island kingdom of Montmaray with actual historical events.  As in the previous novels, Michelle Cooper does an astoundingly good job of mixing the fictional and the factual in believable ways.  The novel provides the reader with a great deal of historical detail about life on the British home front during the war, from the cookery guidelines Sophia helps to write (attempting to convince people to cook with a lot of root vegetables in the face of rationing) to the realities of bombing raids and blackouts.  Cooper also highlights aspects of the war that most general readers wouldn't necessarily be aware of, such as the not exactly neutral state of Franco's Spain and the interrogation of German prisoners of war in Kensington Gardens.  (I wasn't aware of these things and I consider myself a bit of a WWII buff.)

And throughout the war are interwoven the fates of the FitzOsbornes from the outbreak of war to the summer of 1944.  I got answers to all my questions.  1) Simon and Toby definitely become involved in the war, with Toby flying fighter planes and facing a great deal of danger.  I worried along with Sophie what was to become of both young men.  2)  Sophie and Veronica and even socialite Julia from the first two books take on wartime service: Sophie in the Food Ministry, Veronica with the Foreign Office putting her knowledge of Spanish to good use, and Julia serving as an ambulance driver.  3)  And yes, a beloved character dies, which had me absolutely bawling.

I was very impressed by the FitzOsbornes final, brave, and actually rather believable plan to take back Montmaray from the Germans.  I was also pleased by the epilogue written by Sophia in the 1948, which explains the post-war fates of the characters, including children, professions, and the ultimate fate of Montmaray.

Now, I have a very few quibbles regarding the series overall.  Throughout the first two books, I wondered how the author would come up with a satisfying ending for Toby, whose homosexuality is definitely part of the story.  He is accepted by his family, but homosexuality was still illegal in Britain at this time.  (See, for instance, the sad story of Alan Turing, codebreaker at Bletchley Park and father of computer science, who was prosecuted for his homosexuality in 1952.)  Another tricky aspect of the story I wondered over was the post-war fate of the main characters, who belong to a royal family, but who will enter into a Britain dominated by the Labour government, nationalization, and the decline of the aristocracy.  Cooper resolves these problems in ways that are eminently satisfying to the reader who is invested in these characters' welfare.  On the other hand, the ending, dare I say it, might be a bit too happy and easy?  It's hard to say.

My other quibble is perhaps a little harder to explain.  I sometimes felt that Sophia, whose siblings and friends are involved in major ways in the war and the politics surrounding it, especially as the royal family of a technically combatant nation, sometimes came off as slightly ignorant or indifferent to the historical events happening around her.  I know part of this is likely a narrative device, to provide the contemporary teen (or adult) reader with historical and political information as Sophie learns it.  I am also aware that Sophia is not nearly as politically minded as Veronica.  But it sometimes seemed that Sophie should have had more of an interest in, say, the Italian front, and this made her characterization seem slightly uneven at times.

These are small quibbles, and don't detract from the overall strength of the trilogy as a whole.

To finish, I will also say that I was impressed by the way that Cooper handles the sexuality of her characters, which by the third book have almost all entered adulthood.  They discuss and consider their own attitudes toward sexual experience prior to and after marriage and think critically about how their views mesh with those of 1930s and 40s "Society".  Veronica even comes out against matrimony, as a clearly thought through stance.  Because we have watched Veronica's intellectual development and her feminist politics, this rather unorthodox position on marriage isn't all that surprising and reflects her principles (especially since she would lose her job at the Foreign Office if she married).  Sophia depicts two sexual experiences, not in any explicit detail, but certainly in ways that illuminate her character and relationships with men.

Overall, this is a fabulous historical YA series and I feel rather sorry for readers (like my mom) in North America who have to wait for the October release date to find out what happens to the FitzOsbornes.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Out on Submission

As of about half an hour ago, a query and sample chapter for my novel are out there in cyberspace, sitting in an editor's inbox.


I was prepared.  The chapter was polished; I'd been over the query letter so many times I was getting slightly sick of it (in the best possible way).  I'd gotten outside criticism on both parts of my submission.  I'd researched the guidelines and formatting.

I knew all of this.  I knew it was okay; it was ready to go.  But it took me a good minute before I could hit "Send".  My finger was hovering over the mouse, ready to click, and I felt really almost paralyzed, or like a leaden ball of dread had built up in the pit of my stomach, so that I couldn't move.  But the moment passed, and off it went.

Now, of course, comes the obligatory waiting and almost certain rejection (plus more rejection after that).  That's fine.  I've read up on the publishing process and spoken to writers in various states of submission.

I remind myself that it's really all about finding an agent/editor who loves my book enough to want to dedicate a lot of time and effort to improving and selling it.  Out of the thousands of books sitting on bookstore shelves, how many would I want to read?  A small percentage.  How many would I like?  Love?  Smaller and smaller percentages, all based on the quality of the books and my own finicky readerly preferences.  So, on an intellectual level, I can understand how finding an agent/editor could take a very long time.

In any case, my novel is out there.  I started writing the first draft August 17, 2006.  It seems fitting to send it off so close to that anniversary.

And perhaps now that I've set it free, some new idea will take hold of my imagination and I'll begin writing the next one.  That will bring its own possibilities, joys, and terrors.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Chapter Writing Survival Kit: Chapter Two Edition

1.  Classical music - Beethoven, Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Mozart, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Tchaikovsky most recently
2.  Other music: Apocalyptica, Lacuna Coil, and lots and lots of Florence + The Machine
3.  Werther's Hard Candy
4.  Emerald green gel pen - to make writing by hand more fun
5.  Peppermint tea
6.  Kitchen timer for writing sprints
7.  Moleskine notebook for tracking progress
8.  Laptop
9.  Sitting in bed - to trick myself into thinking the writing isn't stressful
10.  College library - so I can spread out my work on a big table and stare at the beautiful ceiling when I need to think

Here's the Chapter One Edition, which is slightly different.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

My Love Affair with Hitchcock

Today it was announced that for the first time since 1962, the number one "best" film in Sight and Sound's movie poll is not Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, but rather Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.  Very interesting indeed.

If I was picking a favourite between the two, I'd have to say I would have gone with Vertigo myself, though I'm not sure I would or could say with any confidence that either was the best film ever made or even my favourite.  In fact, I'm pretty sure Vertigo isn't even my favourite Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock was the first director whose films I sought out precisely because he had directed them.  I think I saw my first Hitchcock film when I was about 10, on television in one of those grainy, jumpy, washed out versions - so much different from the digitally restored wonders you can buy on DVD and Blu-ray now.  I'm pretty sure it was Dial 'M' for Murder, and I can remember to this day my mom telling me how clever the solution to the murder case was.  I thought it was wonderful.

North by Northwest, Rear Window, Rebecca, and Suspicion followed that first experience.  Mom and I liked to visit the local Family Video and raid the Classics and Oscars shelves.  I'm assuming this is how we came across Vertigo, which blew my mind with its twistiness and its sudden, shocking ending, with its psychological suspense and tortured romance.  I can remember very clearly walking home from school one day shortly after I'd seen it (I think I was 13) and telling a friend the plot.  I don't think she thought it was quite as amazing as I did.

And there were other Hitchcocks - Spellbound and Marnie (which also made a huge impression and sent me off in search of the source novel - I remember I saw both these on VHS from the public library), the rather laughable The Birds, To Catch a Thief, Psycho, Strangers on a Train (watched on a date with Tim on the family room sofa), Notorious (watched on our lovely flatscreen in our basement suite).  The most recent Hitchcock I've seen was (finally) Rope.  To this day, shamefully, I've never seen any of the silent or British films, which makes me a terrible philistine.  But, there's lots of time for those yet.

I feel really lucky that the BFI in London is running a giant retrospective of Hitchcock's films this summer and autumn.  I've already booked tickets to see Dial 'M' for Murder (in 1950s-style 3D), Vertigo, Marnie, and Rear Window.  I'd also like to get up to see Rebecca.  I'm really looking forward to seeing these films in a theatre after all these years.