Quick Review: “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” by Susan Elia MacNeal

A few months ago I read “Princess Elizabeth’s Spy” by Susan Elia MacNeal (see my review here: https://drbethnolan.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/quick-review-princess-elizabeths-spy-by-susan-elia-mcneal/ . I really enjoyed this period cozy mystery about Maggie Hope, a code breaker and typist to Churchill during WWII. I decided to go back and read the first book in this series: “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary”. I purchased the book from Amazon for my enjoyment (technically my husband purchased it for me because I ordered through his account while he was in Europe on business – lol).

This book introduces Maggie Hope, a British-born but American-raised twenty-something, living in London and working as a typist during WWII. Maggie has a host of friends, both male and female, all with their own subplots/developments. Her parents are deceased for many years and she has been raised by her aunt in Boston. Maggie is a math whiz, and she yearns to be a code breaker. Instead she is a typist. The more Maggie works, though, the more she uncovers. Is there a spy amongst them? What really happened to her father? And is there a coded German message right in front of their faces?

I really enjoyed this first story of the series! MacNeal is a strong writer and I enjoyed how much I learned from reading this novel. This is a cozy mystery in that it is not overly violent or graphic; however, there is a wealth of (what I presume is well-researched!) information about London during WWII, espionage, and life in the 1940’s.

I look forward to more Maggie Hope mysteries from Ms. MacNeal.


2012 is not over yet! Review of “The Secret Keeper” by Kate Morton

Several weeks ago I was ordering everyone books from Amazon for Christmas and I saw this title under recommendations. It looked so intriguing that I bought it for myself for Christmas! “The Secret Keeper” starts with British teenager Laurel hiding from her younger sisters in her treehouse, when a stranger comes to their home and she witnesses her mother stab the man to death. The police rule that the homicide was self-defense, and the man is thought to be a local criminal, and so Laurel moves on and seems to forget that day.

Fifty years later, Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, is turning eighty, and close to death. She begins to tell Laurel that she has some regrets and that all is not as it seems. However, Dorothy is losing her faculties as well, and Laurel can’t get the whole story from her, so she seeks to solve the mystery herself. Just who was the man her mother killed that day, and why did he seem to know her mother? Added to these questions are some items Laurel finds hidden away: a book with an inscription, a thank you note, a picture of her mother and her friend Vivien, a small doll and an old fur coat. Will she figure out the past before Dorothy passes on?

This story is told in various voices: Laurel as a teen, Laurel in the present, Dorothy as a young girl, Dorothy as a young adult, Vivien as a child, Vivien as a young adult, etc. We move from the present to the fifties in England, to London during the Blitz, to Australia pre-WWII. I loved this style and the way the story unfolded slowly and step by step. I did not guess the ending, but once it was revealed I saw that all the clues were right before me the whole time. I really enjoyed Morton’s writing style and will look for other books by her.

Recommended for those lovers of historical fiction – WWII era – with a dash of mystery and romance thrown in. Definitely one of my fave reads of the year!

REVIEW: The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading British author Gabrielle Donnelly’s “The Little Women Letters”. I had received the book as an advanced reader copy while attending the BBC part of BEA in New York in May. (See also my recent post of a video clip of Ms. Donnelly discussing her book). I really enjoyed reading this modern day novel of three sisters who parallel and are the descendents of the fictional March sisters of “Little Women”.

The Atwater sisters live in London and are the great great granddaughters of Jo March. Emma is the always sensible eldest, similar to Meg March. Sophie is the beautiful and somewhat self-centered youngest sister, similar to Amy March. And Lulu is the middle child, seeking to find her way, parallel to Jo March. Their mother is actually somewhat similar to the real “Mrs. March” Abba May Alcott: a feminist and social worker. They even have a crotchety old aunt from Boston – Aunt Amy in this case – similar to Aunt March. Notably, Beth March is missing (a wise choice, in my estimation). The girls seek to solve the various issues in their everyday lives, while Lulu finds a stash of letters written by Jo March to her sisters long ago. The similarities are striking and she takes solace in these letters as she struggles to find a job, a profession, and a relationship with a man.

I think I’ve written before of how I am an incredibly harsh critic of fictionalized stories of Louisa May Alcott since I am quite knowledgeable about the family and spend time at their house museum in Concord. I was a tad sceptical when I began this book as I feared I would once again be disappointed by the actions or discordant voices I might find. However, this book is not about the Alcotts, it is about the March family – and a family in modern times. I was struck by what an excellent job Ms. Donnelly did in capturing not only the voices of the March sisters of “Little Women”, but the essence of the Alcotts as well. There were too many similarities and subtleties between the real family and this novel to think that it was coincidence. Ms. Donnelly not only did her homework, but did an excellent job in capturing that embodiment of character that is Alcott. My hat’s off to her!

This is a book that I would read, put down, and then pick up again. The story moved much like “Little Women” does: a slice of life in a family of sisters. I am guessing LW fans will adore it.