mr. churchill’s secretary

•May 11, 2012 • 1 Comment

Mr. Churchill's Secretary: A NovelI’ve always been a fan of historical fiction, and I certainly have a soft spot for anything set in England, so it’s no surprise that Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary caught my attention.  Set in 1940, the novel tells the story of Maggie Hope.  Maggie, a British citizen raised in the United States after losing her parents in a tragic accident, is a brilliant young woman.  Although securing a place at MIT as a graduate student after graduating from Wellesley, the death of her grandmother forces Maggie to change her plans.  She returns to London with plans to quickly settle her grandmother’s estate and sell the family home, but instead finds herself setting into London, with a handful of roommates and a secretarial job in the prime minister’s office in the midst of World War II.  But Maggie soon learns that not all of the secrets in the office have to do with the war; some are much closer to home.

MacNeal’s London is a vibrant, buzzing, and somewhat frightening place.  She captures the wartime atmosphere convincingly, with blackouts and bombings and air raid shelters.  And Maggie herself is a compelling protagonist, intelligent and forthright, but with frustrations and anxieties that are easy to understand and feel alongside her.  The supporting characters are hit and miss; some are underdeveloped, and others feel superfluous altogether, but generally, they provide us with a context from which to better understand Maggie, both in the ways she is alike and different from them.

But the real star of the novel is the plot.  The writing is heavy-handed at times; MacNeal was a little too liberal with the foreshadowing and suspense at key points, which bogs down the narrative.  However, the storyline itself has an engaging energy that makes the novel difficult to put down.  Even the historical perspective takes unexpected turns at times, not depending entirely on the Nazis for conflict and turmoil.  All in all, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary is a quick, compelling read – a great contender for a historical fiction fan looking for the right vacation novel.

*This book was provided to me for review at no cost by the publisher.



•March 27, 2012 • 1 Comment

Wahoo is not your typical teenager.  First of all, his name is Wahoo.  Second, the family pet Alice the alligator mistook his thumb for dinner one night and bit it off.  Third, his animal-wrangler father got conked on the head with a frozen iguana, and the resulting concussion has caused some serious problems for the family finances.

So when TV star Derek Badger approaches Wahoo and his dad about helping out on his survival show, they sign on.  Never mind that the show isn’t really about surviving anything, or that Derek has no idea about what he’s doing, or that they’re trying to help Wahoo’s friend Tuna hide out from her loose cannon of a father, or that Wahoo’s own dad is still seeing double from his head injury.

Chomp, Carl Hiaasen’s newest juvenile novel, is a clear descendant of his earlier efforts: eco-centric, set in Florida, and full of zany characters.  But it’s easily my favorite of the books of his I’ve read.  Wahoo is an easy-going, likeable kid who’s main mission in life seems to be trying to keep his father in check – Mr. Cray, for all his animal sense, seems to have little idea of how to interact with actual people.  When they head off into the Everglades with a a hotel-staying, dessert-loving “survivalist” and a taxonomy-obsessed, father-evading girl in tow, chaos breaks loose.  Hiaasen’s adventure is action-packed and well-paced – fun to read and tough to put down.   Though he brings in timely media issues – like just how much of reality television is “reality” – along with his standard environmental perspective, the real focus of the story is on the characters he so carefully crafts.

The result is a clever, funny, chaotic trip through the Everglades.  If that sounds like a good time to you, then Chomp is probably a great fit.  Just watch out for Alice.


*I received this book at no cost from the publisher

this week

•March 9, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Happy March!  This morning I saw the first daffodil bud of the spring…as I was walking through the falling snow on the way into the office.  If that doesn’t give you a true glimpse of March in Ohio, I don’t know what could.  And my reading, much like the weather, has been all over the place…

Recently finished – I just listened my way through Paoli Bacigalupi’s The Ship Breaker, which totally swept me away.  Two days of driving for work let me have an intensive encounter with it, and this is the type of book that was all the better for it – I’m hoping to write more about it later.  In other audiobook news, I finished The Woman in White, which I loved. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, narrative masterpiece, and if you’re at all a fan of Dickens or George Eliot or the Bronte sisters, I have no doubt you’ll be pulled in the same way I was.  I also did a quick re-read of Little House on the Big Woods last week, primarily because of…

Currently in progress – The Wilder Life.  I’m not terribly far in, but I already feel a deep camaraderie with Wendy McClure based on our shared love of these books, and I think I’m going to intersperse my reading of her book with re-readings of the Little House series.  I’m confident I’m going to have a lot more to say on Wendy and her Little House adventures, but let’s suffice to say for now that this has so far not disappointed in any way.

About to start – Well, probably Little House on the Prarie, as it’s the next LH book in line, but also some fabulous advance copies I’ve received in the past few weeks.  More on these later!

What are you wrapping up winter – or maybe bringing in spring – with?

the fault in our stars

•February 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

With every book of his I’ve read, John Green has been creeping into my upper echelon of young adult authors.  I think his most recent effort, The Fault in Our Stars has secured him a position in the very utmost tier.

Hazel is 16 and is dying.  Not quickly, as she was once expected to, but slowly – the miracle drug that shrank the tumors in her chest have given her extra years, but no one knows how many.  And they haven’t negated the need for an oxygen tank at all times.  It’s not exactly a normal teenage life.

But fortunately, Augustus Waters is not a normal teenager.  When the two meet at an adolescent cancer support group, Hazel has to decide exactly what she’s going to allow herself to experience in her life – however short it may be.

There’s a whole depressing genre of books out there with sick and dying kids and everyone else learning tough life lessons from their courage and faith and whatever else.  (I know; I think I spent a year of my teenage life only reading books where someone died.)  This is not one of those books.  Green creates real, complicated, funny characters (and I wouldn’t expect anything else of him), who approach their situations with fear and humor, sorrow and wit. For Hazel and Augustus, death is certainly in the mix, but the joy of the novel is seeing what they learn about living in spite of that ever-looming presence.

The result is a book that is beautifully, heartbreakingly, and humorously written – tears are likely, but laughter is absolutely guaranteed.  I have yet to read something of John Green’s I don’t love, but this novel is refreshingly different from his others (which are fantastic, but have some pretty clear parallels between them). This is the type of book that – even though it’s only been out for a few weeks – has me impatiently waiting for his next one.

this week

•February 19, 2012 • 1 Comment

January was a fabulous month for reading, for a number of reasons – a few days off of work, lots of audiobook time, some quiet weekends.  Not so much in February.  But I have found my way into a few things.

Recently finished: In the last weekend of January, I started and finished The Fault in Our Stars within the span of two days.  It was a fantastic novel, beautifully written, and I hope to write more about it soon.

In progress: I’ve been spending most of my listening-time this month with Wilkie Collins’ The Women in White, which is totally enthralling.  I’ve also started (but barely) The Wilder Life, in which writer Wendy McClure details her retracing of the path of the Ingalls family.  Being a huge fan of the Little House books (and hoping to someday visit DeSmet myself), I’m eager to see where her journey takes her.

About to start:  I’ve received a few advance reading copies in the past few weeks that I’m planning on jumping into.  But I also have a suspicion that I’m going to be wanting to reread the Little House books in the near future.

What’s been on your list this month?

is everyone hanging out without me

•January 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

In the introduction of her recently released book, Mindy Kaling pre-emptively answers a few questions she thinks her readers might have, including:

“This sounds okay, but not as good as Tina Fey’s book.  Why isn’t this more like Tina Fey’s book?”

To which she answers:
“I know, man.  Tina’s awesome.  I think she may have every major international trophy for excellence except a Heisman. (She might actually have an honorary Heisman, I should check.) Unfortunately, I can’t be Tina, because it’s very difficult to lure her into a Freaky-Friday-type situation where we could switch bodies, even though in the movies they make it look so easy.  Believe me, I’ve tried.” 

She’s right.  This book isn’t as good as Tina Fey’s.  I mean, Tina has nearly a decade of life and professional experience on Mindy, and her stories about parenthood and getting 30 Rock off the ground offer some breadth and depth to her memoir that you’re just not going to find here.

But, as this little excerpt of humorously refreshing self-deprecation shows, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is plenty funny in its own right.  Kaling’s essays touch on a range of topics.  Among the best are those that are memoir-y, talking about her childhood and post-college adventures as an aspiring comedy writer and nanny (actual, not aspiring) in New York.  Others are simply observational, with one of my favorites being a one-page rant about the amount of time and attention men spend in putting on their shoes.   Anyone who’s familiar with her work on The Office knows Kaling has comedic chops, but it’s fun to hear her voice – not that of the hyperbolic Kelly Kapoor – shine through (the difference between which, by the way, is also addressed in the book).

At best, Kaling’s essays are hilarious and insightful; at worst, they’re mildly funny and slightly aimless.  You might not laugh out loud at every single page, but you certainly will at enough of them to make Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? worth your while. 

this week

•January 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

There were a number of books I received for my birthday (in October) and Christmas that I had every intention of reading right away.  As per usual, that hasn’t happened.  Rather than carefully work my way through my nice stack of to-reads that has been sitting in the living room, I’ve been more or less randomly picking up books as the inclination strikes.  Best laid plans and all that…

Recently finished: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was a compelling read I wrote in detail about earlier this week.  Also, a charming Great Depression era juvenile audiobook called R My Name Is Rachel, by the clever and prolific kid lit author Patricia Reilly Giff.

Currently in progress: The hilarious Mindy Kaling’s (of The Office fame) book of essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  I’ve also started listening to the Chronicles of Avonlea, a collection of short stories by L.M. Montgomery that revisits the characters from the Anne novels (including Anne Shirley herself).  The brilliance of these seems to be that they take place concurrently with the novels, so we get more glimpses of Anne’s mischievous youth.  I’ve also been spending the last few weeks drifing in and out of Austen-land – I’ve worked my way through both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and I’m now listening to Emma.  I’ve also got a copy of Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced sitting around, and have been reading a few pages at a time here and there.

About to start: I’m looking forward to John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, which did (finally) safely arrive last week.  Otherwise, your guess is as good as mine.  We’ll just have to see…

What are you working on?