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).

The Cove

Ron Rash offers a tale of misery, poverty, backwoods superstition, mystery, and romance – encased in a slow-moving Southern Gothic tale set in Appalachia at the end of World War I in The Cove.  Although the story is stretched into novel length, the plot is secondary to the descriptive language and the characters’ struggles to survive.

The story opens with a Tennessee Valley Authority inspector finding a skull in an old well, just before the cove will be buried under the water of the new dam.  After this teaser, the narrative reverts to 1917 and slowly unravels around the lives of the three main characters in the gloomy cove.  Laurel and Hank Shelton barely manage to sustain a life on their farm after their parents’ death.  Although Laurel had the potential to become a teacher, she dropped out of school to nurse her ailing father; her purple birthmark labels her a witch with the local community, and her life is isolated and lonely.  Hank has returned from the war a hero who is missing a hand, and hopes to eventually start his own family – away from the cove.

Walter finishes the triangle.  When Laurel finds him comatose in the woods from bee stings, she nurses him back to health, and hopes he is the answer to her yearning.  Walter, who is mute and plays the flute, has a shady past – Rash cleverly hints at prison, wanted posters, and the Germans.  When Laurel discovers his identity, the pace of the story changes.

The war and the local community’s prejudice and fears play an important role in the story. Chauncey Feith, the cowardly wealthy army recruiter, who inspects the library stacks for subversive books and harasses the college German professor, feeds the bias of the local folk with suspicion and innuendo. Rash uses historically accurate references with the inclusion of the German luxury cruise liner, Vaterland, marooned in America when war was declared, and later converted to the American warship Leviathan.

“The ‘Vaterland’ band played jolly shoreside concerts in order to raise funds for the German relief effort, and such Anglophobes as William Randolph Hearst attended charity balls on board and donated generously.”  … excerpt from The Great Liners

Walter’s secret is the key to the mystery, and the ending is startling.  But if you like your mysteries fast-paced with clear clues, the solution may not come fast enough.  Ron Rash, a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies, has a style that has been compared to Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. The poetic journey and the cadence of the language carries the reader into the desperate lives.  It took me a while to get into the rhythm, but once I did, I was anxious to find out if my speculation was correct.  I was still surprised at the end – and glad I had persevered.

The Time In Between

Although Maris Duenas’s the Time In Between begins with slow-flowing mellifluous descriptions of life in Madrid in the 193os, the story morphs into the adventures of a young girl during the Spanish Civil War.   The changes in the heroine’s life evolve quickly and often over the 600 page saga.

Ready to marry a staid civil servant, Sira is seduced by a typewriter salesman/scam artist, and runs away from the impending war and her mother to live with him in Morocco. Before she leaves, her wealthy father gives her jewels and money as compensation for having deserted her unwed mother. Her new-found fortune dissipates under the control of her lover, who disappears with her inheritance, just as she finds she is pregnant and the war closes the Strait.  Abandoned and with no possibility of returning home, Sira is rescued by a police officer, and settles into a makeshift arrangement in a boarding house.

After a mad chase through the streets with guns strapped to her legs and hidden under a haik, Sira has the money to start her own business as a seamstress.  The more successful she is, the better her contacts. Her dressmaking inadvertently connects her to Generalissimo Franco, and eventually Britain’s M-16 espionage team.  The British recruit her and send her back to Madrid to sew for the wives of high-ranking Nazis.  As her life as a beautiful undercover spy develops, the politics get scarier, and her escapades more thrilling.

Translated from Spanish, The Time in Between, has an easy flow with extravagant descriptions of food and fashion punctuating the action.  Although the historical context is informative, Duenas uses the intrigue to promote romance as the main focus in her story –  with the suave villains and the handsome Marcos, who keeps reentering her life – climaxing in a daring train episode.

Sira’s experiences will remind you of the Perils of Pauline – the beautiful heroine survives turmoil again and again, only to emerge victorious.  At times, you may wonder why you are plowing through all those pages, but, the action is constant, and the descriptive interludes will lull you into imagining that you are somewhere else.

The Glass Room

“The Glass Room remained indifferent, of course.  Plain, balanced, perfect, and indifferent. Architecture should have no politics…the house stood beached on the shore above the tidemark like a relic of a more perfect age.”

Simon Mawer uses the Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic as the inspiration for The Glass Room – a silent witness to the transparent lives within and the encroaching war.  This historical fiction of a wealthy Czech, who builds an architectural wonder in the 1920s – a precursor to Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of functionality and communing with nature –  revolves around a house, modern before its time for its austerity of glass, steel, and onyx walls.

The historical significance of the Villa’s design, renamed the Landauer House in the novel,  as well as its role during Hitler’s invasion is true, and some of the characters are real.  The most recognizable is Eva Kiesler, who did enjoy notoriety for her nude movie scenes before becoming Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood’s Austrian film star.

Newlyweds Viktor Landauer, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur and his Christian wife, Liesel, commission a new house designed by an avant-garde architect, Rainier von Abt, on a beautiful slope of land in Czechoslovakia – not far from Liesel’s childhood home.  The details of the construction create a vivid picture of the house and its surroundings; you will wish Mawer had included more than the simple sketches.  The first half of the book focuses on their settling into the house, having children, entertaining, getting richer, seemingly happy – until two characters unsettle the foundations.

Viktor starts an affair with Katalin, a poor unwed mother who prostitutes herself to survive, and Liesel is drawn to the love of her unconventional but well-connected friend, Hana.  The war hovers over the strain of their marriage; Katalin becomes a refugee and conveniently moves in with Viktor and Liesel as governess to their two children. As the country is about to fall, they escape to Switzerland, leaving the Glass House behind to the Germans. By now, Liesel has discovered Viktor’s blatant infidelity with Katalin, but they all remain together – for a while.

As the story continues in Part 2, the fate of the Glass Room shifts to the horrors of the war, as it becomes a German laboratory for eugenics.  Hana has stayed behind and reports through letters to Liesel.  The atrocities are only beginning, and the coldness of Stahl, the German doctor “researching” Jewish genes becomes the symbol of how the war has penetrated. The house survives storms, bombing, the Russian invasion – morphing into a hospital and finally, a museum.  Unfortunately, Mower prolongs the ending, and after more angst, finally ties the loose ends, connecting the present to the past.


Although The Glass Room was published in 2009, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; I just discovered it – thanks to the recommendation of a good friend. With elements of romance and betrayal, the story is a compelling account of lives that endured not only the war but also each other. The historical significance of the house led me to look for pictures and commentary.

I read it straight through – hard book to put down.  In the end, the house survives – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site –  with the beautiful onyx wall still standing, but the lives in the story – although fictional – represent those lives that are changed irrevocably.

The Soldier’s Wife

If you’ve read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,  you remember the charm and beauty of Guernsey in the Channel Islands and the determination of the islanders during the German occupation.  You’ll wonder where they are in Margaret Leroy’s The Soldier’s Wife but you will still appreciate revisiting the beauty and resilience of Guernsey.

Vivienne aborts her plan to flee Guernsey with her children to the supposed safety of London, after France falls to the Germans in World War II.  The Germans bomb the harbor and occupy the island, and a small group of German soldiers move into the house next door to Vivienne, her two young daughters, and her mother-in-law; her husband is a soldier in the war.

The occupation is relatively resistance-free; since the men have gone off to war; those left on the island are women and children – and young Turks, too young to be soldiers but old enough to rebel.  Vivienne’s initial fears give way to the seduction of the German captain living next door.  Leroy carefully documents how he insinuates himself into her life, separating his persona from his life as a soldier; he is lonely and so is she, and they become secret lovers.  For over two years, the war seems to be somewhere else. But when Vivienne’s young daughter accidentally discovers a war prisoner hiding in a nearby barn, the reality of the Germans’ brutality changes her perspective.

Vivienne finds herself torn: if she can ignore what is going on around her, she might be able to keep her family safe; if she follows her conscience, she may die – not even her German lover will be able to save her.  She begins a dangerous duplicity, sleeping with the German officer at night and feeding the German prisoner by day.

The war ends, but not before a dramatic confrontation on the island.  Vivienne and her children survive; read the last sentence carefully for a surprise.

The Soldier’s Wife is not as well written as Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary


and Potato Peel Society – one of my favorite books –  but, sadly, Shaffer will never write another book.  And Guernsey’s story is worth revisiting.

Related Post: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society