Book Review: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

An absolutely delightful debut!

Maggie Hope is the cat’s meow and definitely no pushover in 1940 war-time London!

Maggie is English-born but American-raised and is sent on a mission back to London to sell her grandmother’s estate. Along this journey she gathers a gaggle of girlfriends that end up rooming with her in the big & old house (not a good market when war is declared) and lands herself a job working as a typist for Winston Churchill at No. 10 Downing Street!

At first Maggie is flustered and frustrated at being a typist, why she’s a university-educated-mathematical genius and she’s supposed to be starting her graduate studies at MIT for pity’s sake – not working as a mere typist!

However, working for the Prime Minister comes with much intrigue, inside knowledge and that math degree does come in handy after all! Maggie finds herself breaking codes, becoming embroiled in intercepting a nasty plot to assassinate the PM and uncovering the identity of murderers and IRA members. All of this may sound far-fetched, but MacNeal has written a gem of a story that keeps you reading! The characters are so wonderfully real and the banter between Maggie and her friends, family and co-workers is stellar.

Maggie Hope is a whip-smart spy (she’s tapped to work for MI-Five at the end) and I’m for certainly looking forward to following Maggie on her new adventures. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary comes with just the right amount of mystery, intrigue, war-time history and romance. I’m giving it 4.5 stars – really enjoyed it! It also reminded me to go back and start watching the rest of Foyle’s War! 🙂 And…Maggie is a wonderful heroine to match with Maisie Dobbs! SO pleased about that!

The Lit Bitch also has great things to say about Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. You can read her review here.

You can also find out all about Susan Elia MacNeal at her site here. Even find out about her forthcoming book in the Maggie Hope series, “Princess Elizabeth’s Spy” (AND it says there are 2 more coming! Yahoo!) (so Princess Elizabeth and Maggie Hope…together = excellent & can’t wait fiction!!)

Review: The Mirage

First, I have to note that I love the work of Matt Ruff.  I gave 5 stars to Set This House in Order and 4 stars to Bad Monkeys.  He has other books that are on my to-read list, and I look forward to tackling every one.  Matt Ruff is clever, creative, and spins incredibly complicated tales that only a true author can pen.

Ok, now the bad news.

I did not enjoy The Mirage at all.  I tried.  I tried with all my might and patience to get involved, to feel invested, to care about the characters the way I cared for those in his other novels.  I also had the other reviews hanging over my head — rave reviews… and I kept wondering what the heck I was missing.  So, I tried harder.  I read more…. and more….and then, it was done.  And I was terribly disappointed.

The Mirage is a twist on history.  What if the attack on the Twin Towers was actually reversed?

Goodreads blurb:

11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners.  They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers.

The United Arab States declares a War on Terror.  Arabian and Persian troops invade the Eastern Seaboard and establish a Green Zone in Washington, D.C. . . . 

But what if this is not real?  What if it is nothing more than… a mirage?

Ruff went to extraordinary lengths in this book to alter everything we know. Definitions were turned upside down.  Historical events were retooled. Important figures were assigned new goals and different personalities.  Ruff even included regular excerpts from an online “Wikipedia” of sorts, which included modifications to the truth that had the power to leave the reader spinning.  Everything served as an alternative history.  Everything was a surrogate reality.  But whose eyes were being covered by the wool?

Thematically, there’s no question that the plot was creative.  Where I grew most weary, however, was in reading about actual people, who were morphed into different characters for the book.  “President Osama Bin Laden” was one. The “Quail Hunter of Texas” was another.  David Koresh…. Timothy McVeigh….. they all had roles to play in the mirage.

‘That is the official story,’ Mustafa said.  ‘And given the bloodthirstiness of some Christians, it might well be true.  But remember a key element of the mirage legend: America is the real superpower, while the individual states of Arabia are just that, independent nations.  Weak ones.  When a weak state is drawn into a fight with a superpower, what happens to it?’

Samir shrugged.  ‘It gets its ass kicked.’

Mustafa looked at Amal.  ‘What did Rumsfeld say America did, in response to 9/11?’

‘Invaded Iraq,’ she said.  ‘His story about what happened to the Hussein family was heartwarming, but when I asked what the war did to the rest of us he pretended not to understand the question.’

‘Wait,’ said Samir.  ‘So you’re saying that in this alternative reality of Rumsfeld’s, Osama bin Laden is an Iraqi?’

Herein lies the nagging problem that I could not shake.  The tale became such a reach, so outlandish, and I’m sorry to say, so….. hokey, that I could not muster attachments.  The end of the book also felt rushed; after such a build-up, I was left shaking my head at the resolution.

Judging by the average rating on Goodreads, I am in the minority here, and I’m sure Mr. Ruff will continue to enjoy great success with this newest novel.  I love to see authors enjoying the fruits of their labor.  I guess I just can’t like all of the finished products.

I’m sorry to say….. only 2 stars from this Hoarder.

Audiobook Review: Unbroken

Why have I never heard of 1936 Olympic runner Louis Zamporini? What a story! What a life! I am so surprised there has not been a movie made about this dude! You need to read it to believe it– a true story that is more exciting than fiction!

Award winning author Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, tells the story of Louie Zamporini, the bratty kid of Italian immigrants who learns discipline through track racing. He was pinned to be the first runner to break the 4 minute mile had fate not had other plans. The story is a wild ride from the very beginning! There is no way a review can even touch this man of Nine Lives but here are some highlights (one for each life!):

  1. Louis jumps off of a moving train as a little boy to defy his parents.
  2. He runs his A _ _ off in his teens to keep from fighting and getting into trouble (Louis believes running is what prevented him from becoming a criminal).
  3. When he is in Berlin for the 1936 Olympic Games he swipes a Nazi flag for fun and gets chased by SS soldiers (he comes in 8th over all in the 5000 meter dash, but the impressive part is that he completes the last lap in only 56 seconds, prompting a request from Hitler himself who wants to shake hands with “the boy with the fast finish”). Had the war not started there is no doubt he would have finished in the top at the 1940 Tokyo Games.
  4. He joins the Air Force and gets sent to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. His plane, Superman, gets shot to hell in a dog fight and Louie and the close-knit crew narrowly make it back to their base. They counted over 500 holes in the plane when they got back!
  5. A routine rescue mission in a different plane (nicknamed “the flying coffin”) ends with a crash into the ocean. Louis, the pilot (Russell “Phil” Phillips) and the tail-gunner (Francis McNamara) are stranded on two 6 foot life rafts. In the end they travel more than 2000 miles, surviving shark attacks, starvation and Japanese bullets (WOW– this part had me holding my breath the entire time!)
  6. Louis and Phil FINALLY find land after 47 days at sea (unfortunately “Mac” does not make it). They have each lost at least 100 pounds and can barely walk off the raft. And more bad news– the island is occupied by the Japanese. They are immediately taken prisoner.
  7. They are sent to several different prison camps, each one seemingly worse than the one before. The Japanese were notoriously cruel to prisoners of war during WWII, but nothing would prepare Louie for the cruelty that would be inflicted upon him by one prison guard in particular– Mutsuhero Watanabi (a.k.a. The Bird). The Bird took an unnatural dislike to Louie and did all that he could to break the man. Some of the things that happened were SO hard to read!
  8. The war finally ends and Louis barely makes it out alive. The Japanese were only days away from a “kill all” order when the Atom Bomb hits Hiroshima and ends the war.
  9. Finally home, happy and reunited with his family, Louis meets a wonderful girl, who he quickly marries– but he can not get the nightmare of the war (and The Bird) out of his mind. He becomes a raging alcoholic and his life begins spiralling out of control. After all he went through in Japan he wasn’t sure if he would ever be ok (he does end up finding Jesus thru the preacher, Billy Graham but it doesn’t get all preachy there, which I appreciated– shove it down your throat religious preaching creeps me right out!).

AMAZINGLY enough this guy is still kicking around. He dedicated his life to troubled kids and has had the honor of carrying 5 Olympic torches! Here is a news story about Louie from 2010– when he was 93 years old!!

Just GO and get this book and read it now!! This story is SO incredibly fascinating and so well written that 500 pages will seem like 50! You will NOT be able to put it down!! 5 stars!

Review: The Piano Tuner

Lovely.  Lovely.  Lovely.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason is a quiet story that is written with great affection and stunning character development.  It follows the story of British Piano Tuner Edgar Drake, who, in 1886, is sent to the jungles of Burma to tune an Erard Grand.  A misplaced instrument, no?

Goodreads Summary:

In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner named Edgar Drake receives an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon who has proven mysteriously indispensable to the imperial design. From this irresistible beginning, The Piano Tuner launches its protagonist into a world of seductive loveliness and nightmarish intrigue. And as he follows Drake’s journey, Mason dazzles readers with his erudition, moves them with his vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in the unbreakable spell of his storytelling.

From the moment this audio book began, I was captivated.  Firstly, hats off to the brilliant Graeme Malcolm, who shares the book with such grace and enthusiasm that the result is nothing short of melodious.  He masterfully represents each character, communicating their personalities with his dramatic inflection and tone.  There’s no question that I’ll be seeking Malcolm’s name the next time I’m looking for audio.

As for Daniel Mason’s story, it was heartwarming.  Edgar Drake’s soft-spoken Piano Tuner manages to discover himself in the jungles of Burma, while tuning a piano that just seems so oddly placed.  Why is the piano there?  Why does the army surgeon require its presence?  To help keep peace?  As a conversation starter?  To woo the jungle’s inhabitants?  Does the surgeon even play?

While these questions are answered, the story will wash over you.  The Indian setting will unfold in front of your eyes, and I promise that you’ll love what you see.  The characters are not loud.  They’re not over the top.  They’re polite, sophisticated, and yet, are unquestionably complex.

The Doctor walked across the floor to the windows and opened them.  Outside, the view spilled out over the camp, to the Salween drifting past, dark and brown.  The piano was covered by a blanket made of the same material he had seen on many of the women, decorated with thin multicolored lines.  The Doctor removed it with a flourish.  ‘Here it is, Mr. Drake.’

I don’t believe that there was a character in this story that I did not enjoy.  Mr. Drake and the Doctor were unquestionably my favorites, with their complex natures and how they would wink at their true selves.  But all of the people who keep this story going were fascinating, and beautifully drawn.  I still recall each one vividly.

My only disappointment, if you could call it that, would be how the story closed.  While I understand why Daniel Mason chose that particular path, it broke my heart nevertheless.

Sadness aside, a very enthusiastic 4 stars for The Piano Tuner, for a wonderful story that has left an indelible mark on my memory.  Once you finish the book, you’ll have this odd feeling that you were actually there too.

1840 Erard Grand – try to picture its beauty surrounded by a jungle setting.  😉