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A Brief History of Montmaray

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“There’s a fine line between gossip and history, when one is talking about kings.”

Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from ...

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A Brief History of Montmaray

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Overview

“There’s a fine line between gossip and history, when one is talking about kings.”

Sophie Fitzosborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray with her eccentric and impoverished royal family. When she receives a journal for her sixteenth birthday, Sophie decides to chronicle day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. The politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island—until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. And then suddenly politics become very personal indeed.

A Brief History of Montmaray is a heart-stopping tale of loyalty, love, and loss, and of fighting to hold on to home when the world is exploding all around you.

“Once in a while, a special book will cross our paths and make us grateful for life and the ability to read. I’m talking about A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper. I’m calling her Australia’s next stroke of literary brilliance.”—Viewpoint

2009 Parents' Choice Recommended Seal winner

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Starred Review, Booklist, September 15, 2009:
"A smart and stirring choice to usher fans of the Brontës into the twentieth century."
Publishers Weekly
A highly atmospheric setting on the invented European island of Montmaray and a memorably eccentric cast prove a standout backdrop for this adventure set in 1936. In personable, smart diary entries, 16-year-old Sophie FitzOsborne unveils her life of aristocratic poverty in a crumbling fortified castle with sharks below the rickety drawbridge, living with her unbalanced uncle the king, tomboy sister Henry, bluestocking cousin Veronica and eerily loyal housekeeper (“It's not my fault I'm a princess [albeit one from an impoverished and inconsequential island kingdom that is miles from anywhere],” Sophie moans). Cooper ably interweaves this fictional dynasty with historical fact, sketching details about the Spanish Civil War and growing Nazi power, the handful of villagers left on the island (“there are now as many Royal Highnesses on the island as there are subjects”), visits from friends from England and Sophie's longed-for debut. When German soldiers arrive, events take a perilous turn, and the revelation of long-hidden family secrets adds additional gothic undertones. Cooper's taut pacing and strong characters make this a powerful historical novel. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)\
Children's Literature - Anita Barnes Lowen
In 1936, on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday, Princess Sophie Fitz Osborne receives a journal and begins writing her own brief history of Montmaray, an impoverished and inconsequential island kingdom that is miles from anywhere. There she lives a hand-to-mouth existence with her younger sister, Henry; her cousin, Veronica; and her Uncle John, the mad king of Montmaray. Her days are spent in housekeeping ("now I reek of scouring powder and an ache in muscles that I didn't know existed") and daydreaming about Simon, the housekeeper's son ("I'm not sure that it's love, exactly...perhaps it's just a peculiar and embarrassing type of curiosity."). But what might seem to be a dull day-to-day sort of existence has hints of dark mysteries. Is Veronica's distrust of Simon justifiable? Does he have ambitions as Veronica suspects and was he responsible for the arrival of the Nazis on the island? Does Sophie's vision during a villager's funeral hint of a murderous past? "Thick, dark hair poked out of the top, washing around in the swirling current...all at once, the head flopped out of the cloth...and that was when I saw it clearly. It was Isabella." Isabella, wife of King John and mother of Veronica, presumably deserted them both years before. And why is Rebecca, the housekeeper and Simon's mother so slavishly devoted to King John? The story's beginning is slow, but soon becomes a heart-stopping adventure as a world on the brink of war bursts into the once isolated Montmaray. Reviewer: Anita Barnes Lowen
School Library Journal
Gr 7–10—It's 1936, and 16-year-old Sophie FitzOsborne lives on the edge of poverty in an island castle off the coast of England. With her cousin Veronica; her younger sister, Henry; a dog named Carlos; and her reclusive Uncle John—the mad king of Montmaray—for company, Sophie spends her days helping her cousin and the few remaining servants keep house while documenting her dreams and experiences in her journal. The girls' intellects and fierce determination are put to the test when the Nazis invade their island and quickly turn their state of solitude into a struggle for survival. This book has a bit of everything: romance, betrayal, a haunting, espionage, psychological discord, intimate liaisons, and murder. Although the beginning is heavily laden with the protagonist's accounts of historical events, the mood eventually shifts to an exciting pace illustrating the heroine's adventures and courageous endeavors to preserve her family's bond and royal lineage.—Kimberly Monaghan, formerly at Vernon Area Public Library, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Sophie is a princess living in a crumbling castle on a tiny, remote island kingdom. Upon receiving a journal on her 16th birthday, she begins the saga of a pivotal year in her life and that of her isolated, impoverished and very eccentric family. It is 1936, and the madness that has begun to envelop Europe manages to affect her world and change it forever. Along the way she experiences loss, danger and Nazis, facing it all with a previously unsuspected reservoir of courage. There is much humor as well, in the antics of tomboy sister Henry and in the effervescence of brother Toby, who is heir to this improbable kingdom. Cooper has created a strong cast of odd, interesting characters and makes even the strangeness of the setting and events seem completely plausible. The author consciously echoes elements of Dodie Smith's classic I Capture the Castle, but it is no mere copy. There is romance, adventure, a touch of the supernatural and a winning heroine who will touch the heart. Compelling. (Fiction. YA)
VOYA - Matthew Weaver
Quiet Sophie, her mischievous brother Toby, tomboy younger sister Henry, and their beautiful cousin Veronica represent the last hope of royalty in the small island kingdom of Montmaray in the 1930s. The king has gone mad, the few servants remaining are struggling, and Sophie prepares to leave for England to enter Society and perhaps find love. Of course, she only has eyes for Simon Chester, the maid's ambitious son who often spars politically with Veronica. Told entirely from Sophie's perspective in the form of a journal and the letters she receives, the story grows complex as she becomes more aware of the world around her. The situation gets complicated when several of Hitler's best men come ashore, seeking aid in their quest to find the Holy Grail. Veronica, Sophie, and the rest of the castle household soon become enmeshed in a murder, forcing them to grow up quickly as they race to protect their heritage and their lives. Australian Cooper does a marvelous job of capturing the last days of the fictional Montmaray through the eyes of a young girl blossoming in the midst of monumental political and social change. Cooper infuses her tale with depth, loading Sophie and Veronica with purpose and nuance beyond the typical romantic heroine. Rather than writing a mere love story, she pens a love letter to the final breaths of a vanishing kingdom. Reviewer: Matthew Weaver
School Library Journal
Gr 8–10—The year is 1936 and, on her 16th birthday, Princess Sophia of Montmaray receives a journal and begins chronicling her life on the tiny island kingdom in the Bay of Biscay. The population has dwindled—the impoverished royals nearly outnumber their subjects—and those remaining get only sporadic updates on the Spanish Civil War and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. With the eldest male and heir at school in England and the current monarch most often found locked in his room or throwing chamber pots about, it falls to Sophie and her cousin Veronica to deal with the ominous arrival of a German scholar and his SS guard. In the first title (Knopf, 2009) of a planned series, Michelle Cooper seamlessly weaves in historical facts of the period with the fictional account of daily life on Montmaray which is populated by original and interesting characters. Emma Bering believably voices Sophia's diary as she deals with her first crush, attempts to understand the political upheaval in Europe, completes her daily chores, and experiences an eerie recurring dream. She gives each character his or her own intonations and subtleties, but is at her best with Sophie, a teen whom listeners will relate to as her life quickly goes from monotonous to tumultuous.—Amanda Raklovits, Champaign Public Library, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375958649
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Series: The Montmaray Journals
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 304
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle Cooper lives in Sydney, Australia.

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Read an Excerpt

23rd October 1936

Dear Sophie,

Happy birthday to my favorite little sister! I've been trying to recollect the day you were born so I can gush about it in an appropriately sentimental fashion, but I'm afraid it's all a blank. I must have been too busy pulling Veronica's hair or smearing stewed apple over my smock to notice you popping into existence. I do remember Henry's arrival ten years ago, and if you were anything like her, you were a most unattractive baby—wrinkled, red-faced, loud, and rather smelly. Lucky for all of us that you've improved somewhat with age.

Now, did the presents arrive safely? I had to go all the way to Knightsbridge for the journal, and then I got detention for sneaking off from Games, so I hope you appreciate it. You can use it to write down your thoughts. You must have plenty of them at the moment, given Aunt Charlotte's letter—I assume you've read it by now. Are you thrilled? Terrified? Well, it's all your fault for turning sixteen—you gave Aunt Charlotte quite a shock when she realized how old you'd suddenly become. She had to sit down and have an extra-large sherry to recover.

As for me, this new school is almost as ghastly as the old one. I suppose I'd been hoping Rupert would come too when I was thrown out of Eton, but his parents keep saying no, worse luck. The House Masters have finally sorted out dormitories, and now I share with three boys. Two are in the Rugby First XV, ugh. The other has noxious feet and learns the bagpipes, so is nearly as bad. I have already had two detentions, one for missing Games on Saturday and one for not doing Latin prep. The Latin prep wasn't my fault. I didn't know there was any prep because the Latin Master told us about it in Latin and I didn't understand a word he said.

Remember, I am in MarchHare House, so please make sure you put that on the address when you write, otherwise the letters might get lost. It's a good House to be in because it inevitably comes last in the House Cup, so no one cares much when I lose House points. The other good thing about MarchHare is that we can climb out the top-story windows onto the roof and look into the hospital next door, which is very educational. Also, sometimes the nurses come out onto a balcony to smoke, and they throw us a cigarette if we beg nicely.

It's almost lights-out, so I'd better finish. Tell Veronica to come and live in my trunk so she can secretly do my Latin prep for me. She could write my History essay as well, it is on the Restoration. And ask her to bring Carlos with her so he can eat the bagpipes.

Love from your wonderful brother,

Toby

As usual, Toby's letter was coded in Kernetin, which Toby and my cousin Veronica and I invented years ago so we could write notes to each other without the grown-ups being able to read them. Kernetin is based on Cornish and Latin, with some Greek letters and random meaningless squiggles thrown in to be extra-confusing. Also, it is boustrophedonic (I adore that word and try to say it as often as possible, but unfortunately it hasn't many everyday uses). "Boustrophedonic" means you read one line left to right, then the next right to left. Veronica can translate Kernetin straight off the page into English, but I find it easier to write it out, so there it is, my first entry in my new journal. It has a hundred blank pages thick as parchment, and a morocco binding, and is almost too lovely to write in.

I did get some superb birthday presents this year. Veronica gave me a pen with my initials on it. From my little sister, Henry, came a new Pride and Prejudice, because I dropped my old one in the bath and it hasn't been the same since. (Henry, who wishes she'd been born a boy, looked quite disappointed when I opened the journal from Toby—she'd probably told him to get me one of those pocketknives with attached magnifying glass, screwdriver, and fish-scaler, hoping that I'd then lend it to her.) The villagers presented me with a honey-spice cake, a lavender pillow, and a beautiful comb carved out of driftwood. Uncle John doesn't even know what year it is, let alone the date, so I never expect so much as a "Happy birthday" from him, but Rebecca, our housekeeper, gave me the day off from washing up the breakfast dishes. Even Carlos, our Portuguese water dog, managed a birthday card, signed with an inky paw-print (now I understand why Henry was being so secretive yesterday and how the bathtub ended up with all those black streaks).

And then there was Aunt Charlotte! I opened her letter long after breakfast was over because I couldn't imagine her approving of anything as indulgent as birthdays, but that turned out to be the most exciting part of the whole morning. I won't copy it all out, most of it being her usual scoldings about our idle, extravagant lives here on Montmaray, and do we think she's made of money, and so on. But here is the important part:

._._._and now that you are sixteen, Sophia, I am reminded yet again of the sad burden I have been forced to bear since my youngest brother and his wife were so cruelly torn from this world, God rest their souls. My only comfort is knowing how grateful Robert and Jane would be if they could see all that I have done for you children.

However, my responsibilities are not yet complete, and your mother in particular, Sophia, would have wanted you to be given the same social opportunities she had. As for Veronica, it is not her fault that her feckless mother is who-knows-where and quite unable to make appropriate arrangements regarding a matrimonial match. I feel it is my duty, then, to sponsor your debuts into Society. We cannot postpone this event much longer, in light of your advancing ages.

I expect early in the new year would be the best time for both of you to travel to England. I leave it to Veronica to write to Mr. Grenville regarding steamer passage and railway tickets. In the meantime, I shall begin perusing the Almanach de Gotha for eligible prospects_._._.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2011

    Highly recommended--captivating read

    Sophie may be a princess, but she must deal with typical family issues like difficult siblings, crazy relatives, and loss of her parents. While she lives in a castle, it is falling down around her! She is grappling with who she is and what direction to take her life in, just like any other 16 year old. Michelle Cooper has created a captivating world on Montmaray and Sophie recounts her madcap life there in a compelling way.

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  • Posted December 31, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by LadyJay for TeensReadToo.com

    Sophie FitzOsbourne lives on the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray. She and the rest of her family are royalty, even though their subjects are few and the castle is falling down around them.

    Princess Sophie decides to keep a diary of events so that the history of Montmaray will not be lost. She chronicles the everyday happenings on the island, discusses the tragic death of her parents, and also touches upon the political unrest in both Germany and Spain.

    The whole world seems to be on the brink of something terrible/wonderful, and Sophie is left to tend to her younger sister and insane uncle, the King of Montmaray. Inevitably, Sophie is forced to make hard decisions, but she does it with a princess' grace.

    I have always been a fan of sweeping, epic tales, and A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY feels like one to me. Michelle Cooper has all of the bases covered - adventure, romance, suspense - they all can be found in this novel.

    I enjoyed reading Sophie's perspective on things - What would happen to Montmaray if another Great War took place? Would Sophie be forced to leave the only home she has ever known? Her narrative is strong and very detailed.

    The author also does an excellent job of including conversations that Sophie has with other characters. We get to see all points of view through her diary. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am looking forward to more stories from Michelle Cooper.

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  • Posted November 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Captivating

    Even though I was certain Montmaray was not a real place, I continually second guessed myself throughout reading the text. Cooper does such a fantastic job of creating a believable history, topography, and culture for this imaginary island that it makes it difficult to believe it's not an actual place.

    Also, typically I don't like the whimsical girl 1st person narrative, but I believe it worked for this story very well. However, there were sometimes where the journal concept Cooper uses to tell the story breaks down a bit. By that I mean specifically that the events and the way Sophie is relaying those events seem less like a girl writing in her journal and more like a standard 3rd person omniscient narrator.

    The most accomplished element of the book is certainly the intertextual weaving of historical fiction with historical fact over the course of the history of Montmaray with the rest of Europe, as well as the discussions that arise between the characters about their roles in the world as European royalty given the tumultuous nature of Europe at the time. The war feels real told through the eyes of Sophie as does everything else about her little island kingdom. I recommend this novel to readers 13-17.

    -Lindsey Miller, www.lindseyslibrary.com

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