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Longtime bookconscious readers know my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She was a voracious reader, with very strong preferences and opinions about what she read. She was a big fan of the famous Strunk and White edict: “Omit needless words,” and was sure authors of long books had been paid by the word. Some of her highest praise for anything she enjoyed reading: “There was not one extra word. Every one belonged.”

She introduced me to many wonderful books, from A.A. Milne‘s poetry (she could recite “Disobedience,” as well as many other poems for children and adults, into her 90’s), to Vera Brittain‘s Chronicles of Youth and favorite biographies of political leaders (in particular John Adams and Winston Churchill) or heroic women (notably the only book that has ever made me absolutely sob, Eleni by Nicholas Gage). When my children were small and we moved to New England she sent me Shirley Jackson‘s Life Among the Savages.

Grandmother always had a book to recommend. And one piece of her advice I’ve followed more and more as I’ve entered middle age is that when life hands you lemons, you should slice them up to put in your tea and curl up with a good mystery or spy novel. She loved Agatha Christie, believed the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy books by John Le Carre are the epitome of good writing, and introduced me to one of our favorite heroines of all time, Dorothy Gilman‘s Mrs. Pollifax. I told her about Jasper Fforde‘s wonderful Thursday Next; she didn’t quite embrace Thursday’s snarkiness or odd time-warped world, but she tried it.

I think she would have loved Maisie Dobbs, who is a strong, independent woman whose fictional life experiences mirror some of Vera Brittain’s. I’m not sure if she ever tried Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I’m turning to both these days. Government shutdowns, overheated and misleading political rhetoric, shootings, and all kinds of other things I don’t understand have me turning to mysteries, even craving them.

Of course there is order to a mystery, which is comforting. There’s a definite sense of right and wrong, even when there are gray areas. There’s a clear villain most of the time, or at least a perpetrator whose circumstances or nature generally explain his or her crimes. There are clues that lead detective and reader alike to a conclusion, and there are mostly clean resolutions, where victims may have suffered but justice is served and all’s right again with the world. A series is also very comforting because the characters’ actions may be fresh but they are still familiar.

I have only two books left in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you love a gentle mystery author who writes without graphic violence nor ripped-from-the-headlines shock value and favors strong female characters, leave a comment so I’ll know what to read next.

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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