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Helen Simonson's first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand", is so well written that I could barely put it away last night to go to sleep. I wanted to find out what happens. Of course, we all know how the book will end, as with any comedy of manners, but the fun part is how the author gets us there. And Simonson gets us there quite nicely.

Major Ernest Pettigrew, a widower at age 68 with one grown son, lives in the quintessential country English village, set on the sea, south of London. He has lived there since leaving the British Army, raising his son with his late wife, Nancy, and enjoying his life as a retired military man. He golfs and engages in other local activities and interacts with his fellow, English, villagers. He's lonely and without the resources to know exactly why or what he should do to help ease the loneliness. He falls into first friendship, later love, with a local widow of Pakistani origin. Actually, Mrs Ali was born in Cambridge but is part of a large English/Pakistani family which stretches from London to Lahore. Their "friendship" stirs up feelings among his fellow villagers who don't know what to make of the blossoming relationship. The inter-racial and inter-religious relationship of the two is disconcerting to both the English and Pakistanis who view it. Ill feelings among the villagers begin to show, while the Major and Mrs Ali are not accepted on the Pakistani side, either.

Simonson is an excellent character writer. There's not a stereotype among her characters, though, in a lesser writer's hand, there probably would be. Her minor characters are as well-drawn as her major ones. All are shown with the nuances that make people seem "real". There are a few silly plot points, but not ridiculously so. Everything comes together in the end, as a good "comedy of manners" should.

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Cathleen Schine's new book, "The Three Weismanns of Westport". I gave it four out of five stars because I felt that, somehow, it was a "forced story". Schine, setting out to mimic Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility", needed to make her plot and characters mirror those of Austen's. Which sort of put her in a bind. Simonson, here in "Major Pettigrew" does not give rise to the same expectations that Schine unfortunately did. HER "comedy of manners" is her own creation, not mimicking anyone else's writing.

"Pettigrew" is an amazing study of the people and the times.
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on April 27, 2010
This is an absolutely delightful story. Gentle humour combined with a charming love story make for a compelling read. The British class system is described in a matter of fact style, just all a part of village life at the time. I loved the strength both main characters showed, with all the frustrations of family relationships coming to the fore over the length of the book. I laughed out loud at some of the descriptions, particularly that of the upwardly mobile son trying to parent his father (as so many young adults of that age are inclined to do) while the father resists with all his might. All in all, one of the better books I have read in a long time.
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on August 19, 2010
Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) is a widower leading a quiet, ordered life in the small English rural village of Edgecombe St Mary. News of his brother Bertie's unexpected death unsettles him, and when his doorbell rings, he answers it wearing his crimson clematis-covered housecoat. His caller, Mrs Ali from the village shop has called to collect the newspaper money. And thus begins a love story. No, it's not really love at first sight, although it seems that the Major's current experience of grief has altered his perception of Mrs Ali and perhaps he is `seeing' her for the first time.

Mrs Ali, though, is not really part of the Major's neatly ordered world. For a start, she is of Pakistani heritage and even though they share a love of literature, and have both experienced losing their spouses, any relationship is frowned on by family and friends.

While the developing relationship between Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali is the major focus of the novel, there is plenty of action in the village of Edgecombe St Mary as duck shooting, development and the golf club's costume party vie for attention. Add the Major's obnoxious son, Roger, and various members of Mrs Ali's extended family into the mix and it's difficult to see how the Major and Mrs Ali will ever be able to overcome the obstacles before them.

I enjoyed this novel. Some aspects were hilariously funny; others were quite a sad reminder of the barriers posed by ignorance and pretension.

`The world is full of small ignorances.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon July 12, 2010
This blow-by-blow account of Custer's last stand, alternating as it does between the perspective of Sitting Bull and Custer, is a strong candidate for "best popular account" and perhaps the "if you only read one book on this, read this one." The story aspect is very important to Philbrick and he unfolds the narrative as much like a drama as possible, getting into every conceivable detail and trying to tease out who was really responsible for what, and ultimately, why exactly did it all happen?

Philbrick humanizes both Sitting Bull and Custer in a commendable way, leaving us with a better sense of the flesh-and-blood behind the dubious legends that quickly came to stand in the public imagination. Perhaps what suffers most here is that the detailed analysis ultimately doesn't lend itself to a strong big picture understanding of what was happening. Its very likely that the ultimate reduction of the Sioux to confinement on reserves was not strongly impacted by this battle - the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains was the decisive factor. However, as Philbrick points out, the Sioux have not disappeared, and they still have a preserved sense of culture and identity, so to view them as a defeated people is actually rather near-sighted. The results of military encounters do not a defeated or victorious people make.

If you've not read Philbrick's other books, I would suggest reading Mayflower before this one, simply because its better. If you liked Mayflower, you'll very likely enjoy this book as well, since Philbrick employs a similar narrative method, albeit mostly confined to a shorter passage of time.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon January 20, 2012
Major Pettigrew is a sixty-eight year old retired Englishman. He is widowed and lives in Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside. He is the father of a son named Roger, a narcissistic and foolish man and his American girlfriend, Sandy. Major Pettigrew lives a quiet life. He sets high standards for himself, home, duty and is very well respected by all who know him. He also enjoys a properly brewed cup of tea.

Major Pettigrew learns that his dear brother Bertie has died and he is shocked by the unexpected bad news. The doorbell rings and Mrs. Ali, the shopkeeper in the village, has come to collect the newspaper money. It is usually under the mat, but because he is so upset, he simply forgot about it. The Major explains that he has lost his brother. While searching for the money in his pocket, he becomes dizzy and weak. Mrs. Ali holds him up and leads the Major to a chair. She offers to make him a cup of tea and he readily accepts. They begin to talk about their lives and thus, a friendship begins.

Mrs. Jasmina Ali is fifty-eight years old, of Pakistani heritage and has also lost her spouse.

With time, a relationship grows. The Major and Mrs. Ali, with their different backgrounds, find that they have a lot in common. Both have lost their spouses. They are lonely. He has an obnoxious son. She has an obnoxious nephew. Both share an interest in literature AND they enjoy each others company.

Mrs. Ali is frowned upon by the village people, because she is considered to be a foreigner. She is also not in the same social class as the Major.
The Pakistanis are against this relationship as well. But Mrs. Ali declares, "I will rule my own life, thank you."

Can this relationship with all the gossip, prejudice and intolerance from family and villagers last?

Helen Simonson has written a delightful old-fashioned love story. It touches upon some serious issues like race, religion, intolerance and ignorance. The story teaches us to make an effort to treat our elders with respect and to be tolerant of people's differences.

I enjoyed this novel and can highly recommend it.
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This is my first book on the battle and Philbrick brings it to life with great clarity. No one debates the importance of the event or the inability of history to reveal what actually happened but the author does an incredible job delivering a compelling narrative from fact, witness confusion, and credible supposition (much like speculating on the Franklin expedition).

One thing Philbrick cannot avoid is that "true prodigy of war - charismatic, quirky, and fearless" - none other than Colonel George Custer. As the author points out "Custer was more of a cultural lightning rod than a historical figure, an icon instead of man." But he does chip away at the hyperbole and saint-making that has made Custer a significant figure in American history. On the other side of the battle is, of course, Sitting Bull. He too has been oversimplified in many ways but Philbrick shares him as a spiritual and sympathetic leader who carried the burden of the loss of his way of life. These two eventually died alongside family members with Sitting Bull losing a son and brother at his later death and Custer dying at the battle with two brothers, a brother-in-law, and a nephew.

The book is replete with other interesting facts like; 40% of the 7th Calvary were born outside the US, one gold mine in the contested Black Hills yielded an estimated $1 billion over the next hundred years, the practice of Counting Coup, though Custer was called "Long Hair" by his adversaries he was actually going bald, Custer finished last in his class at West Point yet experienced a meteoric rise in stature and rank when in battle, and Custer's brother Tom who died in the battle was the only soldier in the American Civil War to win two Medals of Honor.

Given that this was one of the greatest defeats in American military history, analysis and debate will carry on and on. I especially enjoyed learning about Custer's subordinate officers Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno who may or may not have reacted well tactically when confronted with their leader's obvious strategic flaws of underestimating the strength of the enemy and splitting his forces. As the author points out the battle "is much like an unsolvable crossword puzzle: a conundrum that can sustain a lifetime of scrutiny and debate." This book is a fine contribution to that debate.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon July 30, 2010
At 68, Major Ernest Pettigrew is a respected leader in the tiny English village of Edgecombe St. Mary. He's an old-school gentleman, a loyal and honourable man among men, but also a lonely widower. His brother's death brings about a new friendship for the Major in the person of Mrs. Ali, the quiet and dignified Pakistani lady who runs the local shop. As they grow closer, however, they discover the shocking bigotry behind their neighbours' smiles.

I love this book. I love the Major, with his impeccable manners, his wisdom, and openness. I love Mrs. Ali, too; I could hear her gentle voice, see her friendly smile, and feel her quiet pride. The village is full of busy-bodies and snobs, including the Major's hilariously arrogant son and his pushy American girlfriend. Each person in the story is utterly believable and recognizable and the village itself is a real character, quaintly picturesque and ideal in many ways.

This is an absolutely charming story of people "of a certain age" who decide to break out of their safe, boring lives to find friendship and love. When I read the last sentence, I shed a tear and smiled and was ready to read a sequel or see this made into a movie. Highly recommended.
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on December 7, 2010
..had passed before white people managed to end the Natives lifestyle.
This masterpiece by Nathaniel Philbrick (who keeps writing extraordinary books) presents the symbolic struggle of Lakota/Cheyenne and their last confrontation with the invaders. Even when I was a small boy, I heard about Sitting Bull and Custer. But now, after many years, I have finally learned the details and significance of this tragic battle. The book is so colorful and vivid that I could not stop reading. I still cannot stop thinking about characters and people involved, those who died and survived. I endlessly wonder whether the whole story could have less dramatic conclusion. Probably not..as history teaches us repeatedly about English-Indian relations; check titles in chronological order: "Mayflower" (end of East Coast tribes), "The War that Made America" (fate of Mohawks and other Great Lakes People), "Blood and Thunder" (subduing Navajo Nation) and "Empire of the Summer Moon" (pacification of Comanche).
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on January 20, 2011
Everything wonderful has been written about this book in the previous reviews so I will not repeat the story. Let me just say that the English was wonderful, the satire was fun, the characters so hideously gorgeously English, the romance and strength of the characters was lovely. :I feel I know all of them.
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on May 26, 2013
I really enjoyed this book. It's an easy read and is a good story about 2 older people finding each other despite coming from different cultures and overcoming prejudices from their families. The predicaments made me laugh and cry and the characters are interesting.
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