Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

REVIEW: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Dear Ms. MacNeal,

Jane sent me a copy of your debut novel, “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” after picking it up at the BEA Convention. If she hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have heard about it for a while. After I finish this review enumerating all the things I didn’t like about it, you might wish I hadn’t.

mr-churchills-secretary I love books utilizing historical settings and WWII has become one of my favorites. So I’m thinking “WWII, in London, a character who works with Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of the early war, espionage, spies, danger – what’s not to love?” I enjoy learning historical tidbits but I don’t enjoy history lessons and so much of what’s here seems like it could be dropped straight into a text book. It felt like a lecture and a boring one at that. Lots of other little details are clunked into the narrative – sometimes for a purpose but often it seemed like “wow, look at the research I did. Isn’t this cool? Look, I’m including this for color. See the color?” Why did we have to know about the setup of the ballet where one of the secondary characters dances? What damn difference did it make to the story? None. Now let’s tour the rooms once used by Wallis Simpson. Why? Who knows? There is way too much of this information awkwardly stuffed into the story.

Then there are all the characters. Some play major roles and readers need to know about them. Some are there for reasons I never grasped. The twins who live in Maggie’s house annoy the other flat mates. They annoyed me too. I also didn’t need to be reminded of how much they kept annoying people. Once an author has introduced someone’s characteristics, I assume that character stays the same unless I’m told or see otherwise. Another character is Gay. Hints are dropped early on but suddenly, out of the blue late in the book, he and Maggie start having a conversation about it at a point where it makes no sense. The book is also filled with exposition. Characters tell each other things that the other character ought to already know. Used sparingly, this is okay. Used a lot, it’s an obvious literary tool.

The final sections of the book are riddled with coincidences. This is often a issue when authors weave their fictional characters into the background of actual historical events. I’ll accept this to a point, else the whole framework of the plot collapses, but brilliant Maggie is on hand to save the day, by noticing hidden codes – and working them out – and being the one who guesses how a bomb is put together, way too many times. My credulity was stretched like taffy. I also found myself yawning and skimming. A book which is supposed to be a taut thriller is not one where I should find myself thinking, “I’m bored.”

Finally there’s Maggie herself. She’s brilliant, she’s frustrated with the current restrictions in place for women and it seemed to me that at almost timed intervals she’d explode into an impassioned speech about it much like an opera singer bursts into an aria. Maggie also frequently genuflects to British history and gets goose pimply with emotion about how moved she is to be in England. I almost expected her to begin belting out verses from “Jerusalem,” “Rule Britannia,” or “I Vow to Thee My Country.”

Too many characters, many of whom are just rough sketches, historical detail that is superfluous and/or badly inserted into the narrative, too many coincidences, clunky writing and a plot that gets out of control and over the top as the little coterie of brave civilians saves London in the nick of time end up ruining this for me. It’s a book I was looking forward to and wanted to like but – after skimming my way through the final 1/3 – ultimately didn’t. F

~Jayne

AmazonBNSonyKobo

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

29 Comments

  1. Kelly
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 09:47:04

    Thanks, Jayne – I do believe I will remove this one and the sequel from my wishlist. Another waste of a lovely book cover….

    ReplyReply

  2. Janine
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 12:13:30

    The cover is so pretty, a friend of mine recommended this book to me, and last night the library informed me that an ecopy was waiting for me to borrow it, but — since you’re giving this an F, and you don’t give them often — I’m staying away.

    ReplyReply

  3. leslie
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 12:35:14

    I read about this book in a magazine and put it on hold at my library. I was surprised when I picked up the book last month and it was actually a memoir published in the 1960s by one of Churchill’s typists (which was pretty good) and not SEM’s book. SEM makes a reference of this in her acknowledgements. Eventually I found the “right” book at LAPL in Overdrive and read it over the weekend.
    Mr. Churchill’s Secretary was the worst! I’m surprised there wasn’t a secret baby, it had everything else. I agree with everything you write in your review, it was a dreadful book.

    ReplyReply

  4. Melanie
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 13:59:25

    Thank you, Jayne. Now I feel vindicated. I picked this up a couple of weeks ago because I really like stories with Second World War settings. I had to stop reading after about fifty pages. Some of the historical details aren’t even correct. One of the characters announces that she just bought a new hat, and it took all her ration coupons. Clothing rationing didn’t take effect in Britain till the summer of 1941, more than a year after this story takes place, and hats weren’t rationed at all. Granted, I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t, just the week before, read a memoir by a woman who was married in 1941. That author mentioned that if her wedding had taken place a few weeks later, once rationing went into effect, she wouldn’t have been able to have a wedding dress. I double checked those facts in another book just to be sure.

    “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” had plenty of other problems, but it especially annoys me when authors make these mistakes. In a book I like otherwise, I’m willing to overlook them, but that wasn’t the case here.

    ReplyReply

  5. Jennifer O.
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 14:10:45

    Word. I just finished this book, and I so wanted to like it, but I had a lot of the same issues you did. There was the history lesson info dump, and I know this area of history really well (and have been to the cabinet war rooms multiple times), so the heavy-handed way it was relayed just seemed lazy and painful. And the villains – Nazis and IRA? Everything was so over the top. The Maggie saves the day again, and again, and again really strained credulity (the part with the bomb was where it crossed the line for me). This book had the potential to be so much better. If you like the premise, I’d recommend the Maisie Dobbs books. Mysteries rather than romances, but the writing is so good and the characters and settings feel real, unlike Churchill’s Secretary.

    ReplyReply

  6. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 17:59:07

    @Melanie: I read some other reviews that dinged the book for incorrect details. So they were boring *and* wrong as well. Fail.

    ReplyReply

  7. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:01:41

    @Jennifer O.: I’ve heard good things about the Maisie Dobbs series and think I might even have one lying around somewhere under my heaps of books. Thanks for the reminder.

    ReplyReply

  8. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:10:06

    @leslie: Hmmm, maybe I should read the typist’s book instead.

    ReplyReply

  9. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:12:39

    @Kelly: There is an excerpt from the next book at the end of this one and I startet to read it to see if it was better. I couldn’t make it past the first 2 pages. Very awkward writing and the same issues with facts being ham fisted into it.

    ReplyReply

  10. Jayne
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:16:52

    @Janine: I know! Generally I can find something about a book to like. After I finished the review I even racked my brains to try and come up with anything positive to say but simply couldn’t.

    ReplyReply

  11. Susan
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 18:51:16

    Thanks for the review. I’d heard some conflicting things about this book.

    That said, it is a character flaw in me that makes me want to try this book in spite of (or because of?) the F review. Luckily, I’m saved from my own perversity by the $10 ebook price! (Cheap trumps stupid.) Too many good books awaiting me in my pile.

    ReplyReply

  12. Brian
    Jul 10, 2012 @ 21:53:30

    Thanks for the review. When this books was first mentioned a while back I was hoping it would be good as the setting is one I like (huge WWII history fan), but the problems you had with it sound like they’d annoy the heck out of me.

    ReplyReply

  13. Patricia Eimer
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 06:23:58

    Wow I put in a request for this at the library a few weeks ago and it just came in for me Friday. Hadn’t started it yet– still reading Project Verity– and n0w I don’t know if I want to. I think it gets a one chapter probationary trial just because I did wait so long for it.

    ReplyReply

  14. cate
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 07:55:37

    After reading the blurb & the review, I have to say , that if the heroine was that brilliant and so code savvy – she’d've been recruited for Bletchley Park so fast, her feet wouldn’t've touched the ground !
    I think I’ll stick with Robert Harris’ Enigma.

    ReplyReply

  15. Estara
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 11:38:45

    Jayne, could I sponsor/bookpush – via Kindle for example – reading Code Name Verity for you? I was a beta-reader for the book (checked for the appropriate German and Naziness) and it’s a book that you will either love or totally not get (from all the reactions I’ve seen so far).
    There’s no romance but two strong women who were brought together in firm friendship and eventually land in a harrowing situation in occupied France. There’s also a lot about the Women’s ATA because E.Wein is a pilot herself.

    ReplyReply

  16. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 12:25:39

    Cate – there’s actually a reason that she isn’t sent to Bletchley Park. It would be a spoiler if I told it.

    ReplyReply

  17. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 12:27:09

    Estara – I bought a copy of “Code Name Verity” based on your earlier comments to (I think) an Open Thread post. I just haven’t had a chance to get to it yet.

    ReplyReply

  18. cate
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 12:51:45

    @Jayne – after that review, I don’t think I want to know :) But I wouldn’t mind an art print of the rather gorgeous cover !

    ReplyReply

  19. Estara
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 14:47:36

    @Jayne: Oh, I love bookpushing without spending money ^^ – it might cleanse your palate if you were to read it in comparison to this. Darlynne is a big fan of the book, too.

    P.S. Oops, no more automatic reply link, but the edit function is back. Yay!

    ETA: on second mouse-over – for some reason the script mustn’t have shown up the first time. The reply link is there o.O

    ReplyReply

  20. Jayne
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 14:55:56

    @Estara: The reply button was AWOL for me too for a while but now seems to have reappeared. Yeah! I know of someone else who’s already read CODE NAME VERITY and is singing its praises so I’m psyched about it.

    ReplyReply

  21. Janine
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 15:09:07

    @Estara and @Jayne: I have Code Name Verity (from the library in my case) as well. I keep hearing great things so I hope I can get past the subject matter.

    ReplyReply

  22. Estara
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 15:46:29

    Yay! The more, the better – Janine. The subject matter… well, it is like finishing reading Lord of the Rings for the first time – you feel cathartically cleaned and have an overall feeling of hope for the world, but you’re also aware of the sacrifices that had to be made and that a price was paid for the outcome.

    … like that.

    ReplyReply

  23. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 16:13:23

    Oh damn. I’m desperate for WWII romances. :(

    ReplyReply

  24. cate
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 17:05:35

    @Aleksandr Voinov……. Try Helen MacInnes. Assignment in Brittany / Unconquerable/Above Suspicion …. all written more or less contemperaneously, but remain very readable. And – if you don’t mind hospital based books AND if you can find a copy – Lucilla Andrews: -The Lights of London & After a Famous Victory

    ReplyReply

  25. Sheri Cobb South
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 17:07:28

    I have to chime in here with a “me, too.” I bought this book with such high hopes. It’s a fantastic concept, and the cover treatment is gorgeous, but the writing just didn’t live up to its promise. I just couldn’t like Maggie very much, in spite of (or maybe because of?) being told repeatedly how brilliant she was. For anyone interested in a WWII book that includes romance, historical detail, and a hint of mystery, I suggest Connie Willis’s time-travel two-parter, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR.

    ReplyReply

  26. Aleksandr Voinov
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 17:21:29

    @Cate – Super, thanks! (I’ve been reading so much WWII non-fiction, I’m really craving some fiction again). Thanks for that!

    ReplyReply

  27. Kelly
    Jul 11, 2012 @ 18:25:42

    I have a bunch of WW2 books in my TBR, but nearly all of them are inspirationals.

    Two non-inspies in the queue: Broken Hero by Anne Whitfield (I have the ebook, but it looks like it’s only paper now) and Sentimental Journey by Jill Barnett.

    And I have The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax on hold at the library.

    Does anyone else remember a show called “Homefront” that was on in the early 90s? It had Kyle Chandler from Friday Night Lights in it. Gawd, I loved that show.

    ReplyReply

  28. Janine
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 02:23:40

    @Kelly: I vaguely remember “Homefront.”

    ReplyReply

  29. Maili
    Jul 12, 2012 @ 05:42:32

    @Aleksandr Voinov: ? There are loads here, surely? Lily Baxter (I quite enjoyed Poppy’s War and Spitfire Girl), Lillian Harry, Lyn Andrews, Joan Jonker (her characters tend to be Liverpudlian – witty (or at least have ready comebacks), practical and down to earth), etc. Or are you more interested in American-style romances?

    ReplyReply

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

%d bloggers like this: