Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Title: Mr. Churchill's Secretary
Author: Susan Elia MacNeal
Series: Maggie Hope, book 1
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2012
Rating: 7/10

I've seen Mr. Churchill's Secretary make the top 10 list of 2012 quite a few times and decided to give it a try. The book starts by introducing the reader to Maggie Hope, a rather progressive young woman for her time about to start her post-graduate degree in mathematics at M.I.T. Her plans are derailed by her grandmother's death and Maggie comes to London to sell the old house and becomes involved in WWII effort by becoming Winston Churchill's personal secretary.

I liked Maggie's character. She is no-nonsense, smart, straightforward and a bit naive. She grinds her teeth at  having to take a position below her ability, but she is capable and able to stand up for herself which makes her a rather sympathetic character.

My biggest issue with the book is the way it flows. The first half moves pretty slowly, we are introduced to all the characters, attend the parties, listen to the conversations. Maggie bumbles around learning her way around the new job. Then all of a sudden the book completely switches pace in the second half with crypto-puzzles, hostages, intrigues, bombings, and plenty more all packed into a rather small space.

Some of the things Maggie accomplishes seem a bit beyond belief and while I enjoyed the story and cheered her on, the thought of how unlikely some of the events were stayed with me in the second half of the novel. And even though I was satisfied with the resolution of the book in the sense that all plot lines neatly got tied off, I felt that the success turned out to be a little over the top.

I also didn't particularly care for the romantic story line of the book. It was clear from the beginning who Maggie would end up with, but it felt somewhat unmotivated and, for me, un-moving. In fact, none of the romances in the novel felt particularly natural to me. Something just didn't click there.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the atmosphere that MacNeal created in the book. London during WWII seems well-presented and well-research. There are lots of neat details about the bombings, rations, St. Paul Cathedral watches, and other war-related trivia. I liked the descriptions of the Churchill's office and excerpts from his speeches. The details made the novel a whole lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

Altogether, it was an enjoyable read with some flaws, but I would definitely recommend it to someone who wants a quick adventure in a historical setting with a variety of memorable characters.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Trick of the Light and The Beautiful Mystery

Title: A Trick of the Light and The Beautiful Mystery
Author: Louise Penny
Series: A Chief Inspector Gamache, book 7 and 8
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2011 and 2012
Rating: 7/10

A Trick of the Light is the next book in Gamache series that is predominantly focused on Clara, who has her debut solo show and then discovers a dead body in her garden the day after. Of course Gamache and his team come down to investigate the murder and the usual inquiries begin.

In addition to the part of the plot dealing with current investigation of the book, there are also quite a few plot advancements in the larger story arch here. There is a subplot dealing with Jean-Guy's painkiller addiction as well as changes to Clara and Peter's relationship.

A common theme in the book is the issue of forgiveness. There are multiple characters looking for forgiveness or trying to forgive and a number of different contrasting situations where the outcome is very different. A few relationships are restored this way and others are ruined, but the stories are nicely woven together and compared.

The Beautiful Mystery is a bit different in that it's not set in Three Pines and actually doesn't involve anyone from the village. Instead Gamache and Beauvoir fly off to a remote monastery to solve the murder of a monk.

I thought the setting of the book made it pretty interesting and I liked the character set and descriptions of the monastery life the Louise Penny integrates into the narrative. There is some religious lore, but also neat hidden rooms, mysterious hidden treasure, and chocolate blueberries.

One might think this book is a break from the larger story arch, but we manage to get some developments there in the relationship between Beauvoir and Gamache. I was somewhat dismayed at the direction their relationship took in this book and felt some of the changes were too fast and too forced. I hope this won't drag on past the next book in the series.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the last few books a bit less than some of the earlier books in the series, but the mysteries are still fun and surprising to me and the characters still draw me in enough to keep reading the series. Now I have to wait for the next book to be published.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Bury Your Dead

Title: Bury Your Dead
Author: Louise Penny
Series: A Chief Inspector Gamache, book 6
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2010
Rating: 7.5/10

As anticipated, I picked up the next installment in Louise Penny's Gamache series. Bury Your Dead is written in a different format than the preceding books. Instead of one murder that the team investigates there are actually two mysteries in this book investigated separately by Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy. In addition to that, Gamache's last case is slowly revealed to the reader through conversations and flashbacks.

I liked the change in mystery style, it worked pretty well, though there were some details that didn't feel very believable (e.g. the amount of independence in Gamache's case solving). I also enjoyed the historical mystery in the book dealing with the location of the body of Samuel de Champlain who is a founding father of Quebec. The mix of historical facts (which actually seemed quite authentic) and the current-day investigation worked well together and I've learned a few interesting things. For example, turns out that all the modern portraits we have of Champlain are actually portraits of a different man and no one really knows what Champlain looked like in reality. There's definitely a lot of research work that went into the book.

The other investigation, lead by Jean-Guy also had some flaws to it. I thought it was a stretch for Jean-Guy to uncover quite so many new facts that Gamache didn't figure out in the previous investigation of the case. I was also surprised at how the case was resolved, and I wasn't greatly satisfied by that conclusion.

Despite all these things, the reading went by quickly and the book was both entertaining and fascinating, so definitely recommended to anyone who has enjoyed previous books in the series.

Friday, February 1, 2013

January Wrap-Up

January tends to be my favorite reading month because I pick up all the books from Best of 2012 lists and enjoy them. I haven't quite gotten to all of them this month, but only because I met Inspector Gamache and decided to stick with him for awhile. Hopefully this will make sure my February is a good reading month as well.

Altogether I finished 6 books in January.
  1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  2. Still Life by Louise Penny
  3. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
  4. The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
  5. A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny
  6. The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
Yes, I know that's a lot of Louise Penny up there. I think I have 2 or 3 more to go and then I promise you a bit more variety after that! My favorite book this month was The Fault in Our Stars for being sad and funny and pretty amazingly heartfelt for a piece of YA fiction.