[Note: I just found this review in drafts. Even though I read this in December 2012, I never got around to publishing this review. I’ve since read Maggie Hope #2 and Maggie Hope #3, and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary remains my favorite]

Mr. Churchill's SecretaryThe Grade: A-

Makes Me Want To: Read more Maggie Hope mysteries, finally read Apollo’s Angels and Citizens of London, watch Enigma again, and read other WWII-era fun London fiction.

My Thoughts: The Unabridged Chick read this and recommended it. I’m so glad she did; I adored it. Maggie Hope is a young British citizen raised in Massachusetts academia by her aunt. She returns to London to sell her grandmother’s house, ends up staying, and is hired as a secretary for Prime Minister Winston  Churchill.

Maggie is a mathematician  and has a spot at MIT waiting for her. She really wants to be one of Churchill’s Private Secretaries, which would be a better use of her skills, but is denied because she is a woman. Maggie is not to be deterred, and what follows is a rollicking good historical fiction spy mystery, complete with codes, spies, terrorists, secret identities, friendship, love, and some feminism.

My one complaint is that after the denouement,  the story continued, and continued. And continued. This wasn’t a bad thing, in fact there was still story to tell, though the departure from traditional mystery pacing momentarily distracted me. Now that I’m familiar with MacNeal’s writing, I will be prepared for the future Maggie Hope mysteries.

Finally, I am concerned that since we meet Maggie in 1940, there are only another 5 years of World War II. However, the Cold War lasted several decades, so hopefully Maggie Hope will be with us for several more adventures.

2013 Favorite Reads

Excluding rereads, I read 47 books, essay collections, short stories, and plays in 2013.  Of the 47, most were fiction; I read only 11 nonfiction books this year, though I suppose the play (8 by Dustin Lance Black) could be considered nonfiction. I read 9 young adult or children’s books, and 9 mysteries.

This year, I didn’t have any five star reads, but about half were four stars. Here are some of my favorites:

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from SkyeThis is an epistolary novel about finding our way back to the people we love. In short, it is a novel written for me. Elspeth Dunn lives on the Isle of Skye and has never left. She is a published poet, and American college student David Graham writes her a fan letter, beginning their correspondence. The novel is told primarily through their letters, which begin in the early 20th century and continue through World War I, and letters of Elspeth’s daughter written during World War II.

I saw this on the new book shelf at my library and grabbed it. It is Brockmole’s first novel, and I look forward to her second.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Lucy variations

Another library find, this one a young adult novel about embracing uncertainty. Lucy was a concert pianist, a child prodigy at the top of her game, until she walked away from it. She has’t touched a piano since. Now her 10 year old brother has a piano teacher who may help Lucy find her way back to music. This is from the goodreads description: “The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl’s struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It’s about finding joy again, even when things don’t go according to plan. Because life isn’t a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.”

It’s okay not to know what’s next–a good message for me right now.

I looked for the playlist Lucy makes for Will and haven’t found it, so I have tried to create it myself on Spotify.

CuckooThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) 

This wasn’t on my radar until the news broke that it was actually a J.K. Rowling novel. I got a sample on my eReader and was hooked. Jo Rowling is a fantastic writer, and as a fan of mysteries and private detective stories, I loved this. Cormoran Strike is a good lead detective and I really liked Robin Ellacott, his assistant/secretary. The mystery is interesting and entertaining, too. There are more Strike mysteries coming, thank goodness, and I’m sure they will be on many more radars now.

Morantholgy by Caitlin Moran

MoranthologyAh, Caitlin Moran. To call her Britain’s Tina Fey is insufficient. Caitlin Moran is Caitlin Moran. Funny, fierce, feminist, insightful, etc., her collection of essays cover a diverse range of topics including drinking with Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey, visiting a sex club with Lady Gaga, geeking out on the set of Doctor Who, defending public libraries, her hair, growing up poor, balancing work and parenting during summer break, burqas, internet trolls, and Keith Richards, to name a few.

I adore Caitlin Moran. I follow her on twitter, and I started following the Guardian on twitter and facebook hoping to see more of her columns. That hasn’t worked, but I do appreciate the Brit news.

The Great Pearl Heist The Great Pearl Heist by Molly Caldwell Crosby

In 1913, jewel thieves planned and executed a bold heist to steal a pearl necklace. This was before cultured pearls, so pearls were even more valuable. Crosby’s account of the events and aftermath is well-paced and highly readable. It is a heist story, and a true one. I also loved the pre-World War I England setting.

In honor of Equal Pay Day, I’ve decided to share the response I received from Senator Angus King about equal pay, specifically the Paycheck Fairness Act. The Paycheck Fairness Act would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries, and require employers to prove pay gaps are necessary for the business, tied to job performance, and not related to gender. All good things in my book. Senator King disagrees.

Because I have to have the last word, I’m responding to his response. My comments are in [blue brackets].

Dear Amy,

Thank you for being in touch with me about the Paycheck Fairness Act. [Your’e welcome!] While I fully support the goal of achieving gender pay equity [whoo-hoo!], I am not sure that this bill is the best approach we can take to solving this problem. Congress and the President already passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 [I know; I’m so proud], which I believe strikes the correct balance between ensuring women’s rights to challenge wage discrimination and the ability of business owners to avoid excessive regulatory burdens [excessive regulatory burdens? Like paying me the same amount of money as an equally qualified man who does the same work?]. We should work within the current legal framework, which already provides women with the opportunity to win compensation for discriminatory wage practices [only if they know the discriminatory practices exist], to close the gender pay gap.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as modified by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, employers are prohibited from paying women lower wages than men who are working in positions with the same responsibilities and necessary skills [and we’re still making less than 80 cents to the dollar, so there’s room for improvement]. Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, workers are allowed to file lawsuits against wage-discriminating employers within 180 days of their most recent affected paycheck. This means that under current law, women already have the latitude to contest wage discrimination at any point during their employment when their pay has been unfairly limited or reduced in comparison to their male co-workers [again, only if you know the wage discrimination is occurring. That’s not something employers advertise in the break room].

The Paycheck Fairness Act presumes that these current protections are not enough. First, the Act would tighten the definition of what constitutes an allowable pay differential. Second, the Act would open the door for class-action lawsuits based on gender pay gaps, exposing employers to significant additional risks beyond the individual lawsuits they may already face [as they should if they are screwing over women]. Third, there would be added wage reporting requirements. I believe that these provisions place too much of a burden on employers without providing significant further protections for women in the workforce. This is why I cannot support the Paycheck Fairness Act as currently drafted. [So…..do you have a counter-proposal? Or do you think everything’s working fine right now?]

Once again, thank you for being in touch with me. I really appreciate hearing the concerns and insights of my constituents as I join with the rest of my Senate colleagues in addressing the issues vital to our nation. Please feel free to contact me in the future on other matters that I can bring to the Senate’s attention [I think we both know I will].

Best Regards,
United States Senator

So there you have it folks. Happy Equal Pay Day.

by Tina Fey

How I read it: Audiobook

Quick Take: I’ve been “reading” this audiobook since I believe April of 2012. Fey is funny and witty, and overall I enjoyed the book. Ironically, I was reluctant to listen to the sections about the 2008 election, especially during another presidential election there, yet those were my favorite. Fey includes the original skit she did as Palin with Amy Poehler’s Hillary Clinton about sexism in the media. Fey narrates her own book, and I especially loved the final third. B+

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

How I read it: Audiobook downloaded to my iPad

Quick Take: I love Jane Austen, and Orlagh Cassidy was narrating this novel, which was why I chose to borrow it. I listened to it at night as I was falling asleep. I’m not entirely sure what happened at the end, or all the ins and outs of the plot, but overall it was an enjoyable listen. I was surprised that a supposed Jane Austen addict who finds herself somehow in Georgian England wouldn’t have more knowledge of the customs and mores. Ah well. If my library gets future audiobooks in this series, and they are still narrated by the divine Ms. Cassidy, I’ll probably listen to them, but I won’t seek out the sequels to Rigler’s novel. C

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

How I read it: Paperback from my library

Quick Take: I fell in love with Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s first mystery, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. It was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I enjoyed PES, though not as much as MCS. In this adventure, Maggie is sent to Windsor Castle, ostensibly as a maths tutor for 14 year old Princess Elizabeth, but really to protect her from suspected threats. I didn’t find Windsor Castle as interesting as the Cabinet War Rooms of MCS, and it seemed strange to read a novel about the girlhood of Queen Elizabeth, when her majesty is still with us and, to my knowledge, did not experience the escapades of detailed in this novel.

There were further plot developments in Maggie’s life that I also found cliched. Highlight the next paragraph to be spoiled.

WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS! In this novel, Maggie finds code hidden in one of her father’s old books. She believes he was a double agent during WWI, and that he killed the father of her current handler and love interest at MI-5. The big reveal at the end is that her mother was the German spy, and her mother faked her own death in a car accident. This is straight out of Alias, which was one of my favorite shows. We then learn that John, Maggie’s RAF pilot beau who was shot down and presumed dead, is actually alive and hiding in Germany. The missing-presumed-dead-lover-is-really-alive seems terribly trite. B-

2012: My Year in Books

In 2012, I challenged myself to read 50 books. I included audiobooks in my progress, and as of 11:59 p.m. on 12/31/12, I had completed 47 new books. I finished the last half disc of the Bossypants audio book on 1/1/13.

What I Read

  • 3 audio books and 44 books:

36 Fiction, including

  • 1 short story collection
  • 15 young adult/juvenile novels
  • 10 mysteries

11 Nonfiction, including

  • 3 memoirs
  • 1 biography
  • 2 collections of comic essays
  • 2 Jane Austen related books
  • 1 collection of Harry Potter essays

What I Didn’t Finish

I gave up on Practical Magic and The Shoemaker’s Wife. Both audiobooks, incidentally. Practical Magic was not much like the movie, as I remembered it, and I realized I didn’t care about these characters. When The Shoemaker’s Wife switched narrators, I tried switching to the hardcover and realized I just didn’t care about these characters, either. I call it the Tom Jones effect: I’m really unmoved by men who proclaim their love for one woman, then spend their time sleeping with anything in a skirt that crosses their path, while the supposed object of their affection pines away and remains faithful to the idea of them. Bah.

I also didn’t finish A Kosher Christmas (too dry and scholarly; I was looking more for pop culture history), The Marriage Plot (couldn’t get into it and didn’t like the characters), and Like the Willow Tree (far too depressing for me).

Reading Challenges

I signed up for two reading challenges: the Witches & Witchcraft 2012 Reading Challenge and the The Victorian Challenge. For Witches & Witchcraft, I challenged myself to read 1-5 books and read one: Shadow of Night, the second in the All Souls Trilogy

Thanks to favorite series (Lady Emily and the Parasol Protectorate), I did better with the Victorian Challenge and met my goal of 5 books. I read Death in the Floating City, The Yard, A Crimson Warning, A Spy in the House, and Timeless.

Because of work, I did not keep up with my book reviews, nor truthfully my reading journal. And now, my favorite reads (and honorable mentions) of the year: Continue Reading »

Adventures in Young Adult Lit

Divergent and Insurgentt by Veronica Roth

The Series Grade: B+

Will I Read the Sequel: Yes

My Thoughts: I can’t remember how I first heard of Roth’s series. I found the premise of a world in which people are divided into factions based on personality trait (Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Amity , and Abnegation) intriguing. Yes, I took the facebook quiz before I read the book. I wanted Erudite, because I’m a Ravenclaw, but was instead labeled Dauntless. Hmmmm.

To return to our tale. In some ways, it reminded me of The Hunger Games. Tris Prior is not as engaging or compelling as Katniss, though to be fair, who is? Both endure violent physical trials to survive their dystopian worlds. The difference is Katniss knew what she was choosing; Tris didn’t. Each year, the young adults take a test to determine their dominant personality trait. They can then choose to join the new faction, or stay with the faction in which they grew up. This is complicated for Tris when her test reveals she has aptitude for multiple factions: she is divergent.

What does that mean? It means “our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can’t be confined to one way of thinking and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them” (442). Divergent is the introduction to this world, Tris’ initiation in her faction, and her gradual discovery of what exactly it means to be Divergent. 

I can’t say much about Insurgent without spoiling it, or Divergent. What I can say is that the world-building continues, the mysteries deepen, and I am patiently awaiting the third book in the series, title unknown (though Roth says it won’t be Detergent).

Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev

The Grade: B-

Will I Read the Sequel(s): No

My Thoughts: I couldn’t buy this world. That was the biggest struggle for me. This is the theater where all the characters in all the plays, yet there’s no audience, until our protagonist Bertie stages a  revival of Hamlet, then there’s an audience. Bertie can randomly call for scenes to be set on the stage, yet this has no effect on the world at large. The characters aren’t allowed to leave the theater, yet some do, and it has no effect upon the plays they’re supposed to be in? It would have made more sense to me it were like BookWorld in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  It didn’t work for me and I couldn’t get past it.

I also didn’t particularly care for Nate, Bertie’s would be paramour. Ariel of The Tempest, her foil was far more interesting. It’s not a bad read, and for those who aren’t quite so preoccupied with the premise, it’s probably quite enjoyable.

The Grade: B+

Why I Picked It: I read A Discovery of Witches, and wanted to read the second in Harkness’ trilogy

Reading Challenge2012 Witches & Witchcraft I reread ADOW prior to Shadow of Night, so I’ve read two of my 5 books for the Initiate level of this challenge!

Book One or Book Two: Definitely Book Two

My Thoughts: I definitely preferred Shadow of Night to A Discovery of Witches. For one, while Matthew and Diana are still my least favorite part of the world, they didn’t annoy me as much in this chapter of the trilogy. The first book is mostly about the two of them falling in love. In Shadow of Night, they time travel—excuse me, time walk–back to Elizabethan England in search of the mysterious alchemy manuscript Ashmole 782, and to find some witches to train Diana.

I was concerned when I finished ADOW that Book Two would be all Diana and Matthew in Elizabethan England. They were my least favorite part of ADOW, and I wondered if Shadow of Night would hold my attention without their far more interesting friends and family members to fill out the narrative. Shadow of Night starts slow; I wasn’t really on board until they went to Matthew’s family’s home in France and we meet his vampire father, Philipe. We meet more of Matthew’s friends and family members in 1590’s Europe, and again, I found these vampires, daemons, and mortals more entertaining than our lovers. Though Matthew and Diana did grow on me.

Fans of ADOW shouldn’t be disappointed, and those who had a more temperate reaction to Book One may find themselves a little more compelled by the couple and their exploits. I’m now looking forward to Book Three.


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