Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

Number Ten Downing Street, with Churchill as the P.M. and Germans bombing London, is the setting for Susan Elia MacNeal’s first book in the Maggie Hope spy mystery series – Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.  With a mix of Bridget Jones panache and Ian Fleming espionage, MacNeal establishes a new sleuth with a mathematical brain and the charming mix of English parents and American upbringing.

Maggie Hope defers her acceptance into the Ph.D. program at M.I.T. to travel to London to sell the old Victorian house bequeathed to her by her British grandmother.  When the war starts, she takes on roommates and, despite her qualifications, can only get a job as a typist.

Secret Messages in Fashion Drawings

Spies are everywhere, and Maggie soon uncovers a code hidden in an ad for women’s dresses.  MacNeal supplies a reference in her historical note about Nazi agents in England embedding Morse code in drawings of models wearing the latest fashions.  Maggie finds Morse code in the hem of a dress.

The secret of Maggie’s father’s disappearance as well as the murder of one of Churchill’s staff add to the suspense, and the action escalates with a plot to murder Churchill and bomb St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Along with descriptions of  the horrors of London during the Blitz, MacNeal includes excerpts of famous speeches and lovely poems you may want to memorize.

By the end, Maggie has saved the day and been offered a promotion.  A fun, fast read with both history and adventure – and a possible romance brewing for the beautiful and brilliant red-head.

Thanks to Amy for introducing me to Maggie Hope.  I can’t wait for the next book in the series – Princess Elizabeth’s Spy – to be published in October.  In the meantime, as Churchill advises – KPO (Keep Plodding On).

Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm  in 1932, but her contemporary observations are as pointed and humorous today.  At first, Flora Poste may seem to be the predecessor of Bridget Jones or one of Sophie Kinsella’s characters, but if you listen carefully, you may find more of an Oscar Wilde or Jonathan Swift.  Even if you don’t catch all the references, you’ll still enjoy the story and have some good laughs.

The beginning lines could rival Jane Austen (whose Persuasion is reverently acknowledged by Flora):

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Unwilling to continue to impose on her wealthy friend, Mrs. Smiling, who had taken her in after her parents’ death, Flora decides to tap into the only inheritance she has – her relatives, while she is “collecting material” for her novel.  Only one responds favorably to her letters – the Starkadders on Cold Comfort Farm – distant cousins who imply they owe Flora from a mysterious wrong done to her family years ago.  Undeterred by the prospect of substituting her social circle for a farm with cows named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless, and a cousin who washes dishes with a twig, Flora packs her favorite book (The Higher Common Sense) and takes the train to her new adventure.

Gibbons eccentric characters are clever foils for Flora’s organizing skills  – Aunt Ada Doom, who saw “something nasty in the woodshed” that drove her to barracading herself in her bedroom for twenty years; her son, Amos Starkadder, an aspiring fire and brimstone evangelist (“there’ll be no butter in hell”); her grandson, Seth, “who looked exactly what he was, the locally sexually successful bounder,” whose favorite person is himself; Mr. Mybug, the author who is exposing the Bronte sisters for stealing novels from their brother; Elfine, the granddaughter who is a free spirit in need of a makeover; Adam, the old hired hand who likes cows better than people.  As Flora manages to adjust each life to her spirited view of how they should be – “{she} liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her” – the conversations are hilarious.

Flora, the model of propriety, always maintains her outward composure while her silent quips betray her true feelings:

“The {wedding} decorations…were really charming…only white flowers were suitable to Elfine’s extreme youth and undoubted purity…Flora repressed the unworthy reflection that it reminded her of a White Sale…”

Gibbons uses the sparse plot to not so gently mock the country bumpkin and the city sophisticate.  Flora has her way in the end, and the Starkadders are all reformed into a civilized life,  with  their  “mode of living {molded} to suit {Flora’s} taste.”

I found this book through one of my book clubs, and I am so looking forward to discussing the innuendos while laughing at the characters’ foibles – maybe some we all have in common.

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

Sophie Kinsella has cloned her loveable, scatter-brained Shopaholic heroine in I’ve Got Your Number. If you’ve smiled with Becky Bloomwood through the Shopaholic series, Poppy Wyatt will not only raise your spirits, but may also have you laughing out loud.

Within minutes, Poppy loses her heirloom emerald engagement ring and has her cell phone stolen. The wild ride begins when she commandeers a discarded cell phone and starts a texting relationship with Sam Roxton, a handsome but socially inept businessman. It’s his assistant who quit and threw the cell phone in the trash. Since Poppy needs the phone to communicate with anyone who might find the ring – and others, including the wedding planner – she convinces Sam to let her keep the phone for a while, and promises to forward his emails.

The nonsensical situation is ripe for humor, especially when Poppy starts answering Sam’s mail. The romantic comedy includes a little suspense when someone hacks into the company computer to change a message, but Poppy saves the day.

Kinsella adds over 100 footnotes – Poppy’s nod to her stuffy academic future in-laws. They lost some of their witty sparkle when placed at the end of the chapter on my Kindle (hopefully the actual book places them at the bottom of the page). By then I’d forgotten the reference.

Kinsella has once again morphed Bridget Jones and I Love Lucy into a funny and satisfying distraction, and proves that… “You can be highly intelligent, and also ditzy and klutzy.” The book is a fast satisfying distraction and a good British tonic, if you are out of sorts. If Kinsella is starting a new series with Poppy, I can’t wait for the next one.