Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Mr. Churchill's Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal

A sub-mediocre book of paper plots, cardboard characters, and endless cliches that finally triggers my writer's rage.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Bantam, 2012, 384 pages

Publisher's description:

For fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Laurie R. King, and Anne Perry, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary captures the drama of an era of unprecedented challenge - and the greatness that rose to meet it.

Inverarity's comments: I don't even know who those other authors are, but I'm never reading them.

London, 1940: Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined - and opportunities she will not let pass.

Inverarity's comments: Boy, this sounds interesting, doesn't it? Yes, 'indefatigable spirit' if by that you mean breaking into 'hot tears' on every page. Her 'remarkable gifts for codebreaking' could be demonstrated by a 9-year-old with a cipher wheel from a box of Captain Crunch.

In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Don't worry, there is no changing history here. Nor much awareness of it.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

Her 'quick wits' do fuck-all in this book.

In this daring debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character, Maggie Hope, into a spectacularly crafted novel.

HAHAHAHAOMG they are serious...

Everyone knows that authors rarely earn fame and fortune according to their talents. Very good authors die in obscurity, very bad authors live palatially. As someone with writerly ambitions myself, it really does not much bother me when a 'bad' author hits the big time. I can accept with equanimity that E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown are all richer than I'll ever be, even though I believe that quite frankly I write better than them. But all of the professional authors I like write better than them, and very few make anywhere near as much money as they do. Those are just the breaks in publishing. There is no telling what hits the sweet spot for a mass audience, or who gets a lucky break, or just snags an agent at the right time.

This much more modest book, though, really pissed me off. Because it's just so bad. The writing is offensive in its laziness and its disregard for any elements of craft. It is very clearly a work by an amateur author who hasn't bothered to polish her skills, nor was she given a thorough content edit, only proofreading and copyediting, as far as I can tell. Which is to say, competent sentence structure, the paragraphs fit together, the chapters are logically organized, yup, there is a plot and you can follow it, and there are characters whose names you can remember if you care. But it's just bad writing all the way through.

Ye gads, this thing was nominated for an Edgar. And the sequel was an Oprah selection! Holy crap, is it just me? Am I completely blind and devoid of taste? It's enough to make me question my ability to recognize decent writing, seriously.

50 Shades of Grey did not make me depressed at the thought that I might never be published. This book does.

Okay, let's get into it.

I don't read a lot of mysteries, particularly not "cozies." But this one was supposed to be about codebreaking during World War II, a topic I have always liked. Maggie Hope, the British-born, American-raised protagonist (a graduate of Wellesly college, like the author) has a PhD in mathematics. She leaves Boston to sell her grandmother's house in London, just as England declares war on Germany. Finding herself somewhat trapped by circumstances (though her aunt urges her to return to the U.S.) she obtains a job at 10 Downing Street. Does she get to use her skills as a mathematician to break codes? No, she's a woman, so inept privileged lads get the important work while she gets to be... a typist. But she ends up being the secretary who takes dictation for the man himself, Winston Churchill.

That's all well and good as a premise. It certainly sounded promising. I expected that Maggie would have to poke around, rabble-rouse, push against gender barriers, and probably fortuitously break some codes that no one else could and maybe wind up meeting Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.

Mostly, though, she gives indignant speeches about how horrible and sexist it is that women aren't allowed to do important work, which would sound authentic once but after the third or fourth time just sounds like the author making sure we get the point that MAGGIE IS TOTES FEMINIST YO! (Really, would a well-bred lady from Wellesly, even a slightly non-conformist one — and I say slightly 'cause when it comes to the romancin' she's pretty much Cliche Sue — make cracks about penises and swear as much as she does? This was the 1940s, and it is never hinted that Maggie is considered particularly crude or foul-mouthed.)

Her parents, who died in a car crash, hence her being sent to live with her American aunt, turn out to be part of a mystery which is known to every other character in the book right up to the Prime Minister himself, but no one tells Maggie until the 'Big Reveal.' Which is not such a big reveal because the author tells us what the secret it before we get to the chapter where Maggie discovers it. I don't mean she telegraphs it or uses heavy-handed foreshadowing, I mean she outright tells us: [Spoiler (click to open)]"Maggie's father wasn't actually dead, he was still alive but he went mad."

This was one of the writing flaws in the book that had me repeatedly wanting to throw it against a wall. You know the advice to "show, don't tell"? MacNeal tells us everything. She doesn't describe bombs falling, she tells us "The Germans began bombing London." She doesn't have characters talk to each other and learn about their pasts and personalities that way, she tells us "So-and-so was bubbly and had a lively personality, McBroody was an enigma and never spoke much and Maggie found him annoying." (Spoiler: McBroody is the love interest. I KNOW YOU ARE TOTALLY SHOCKED RIGHT?) And then describes backgrounds, histories, etc., all in third person narration. Personalities are always described, never shown; if you went solely by what the characters actually say and do, none of them have much of a personality. Events are narrated after the fact, rather than described, even when characters die. When it comes time for suspense, it is artificially manufactured by switching rapidly between separated POVs to draw out the action scenes, in which Maggie mostly waits for someone else to intervene.

There is also head-hopping. So much head-hopping. First we are getting Maggie's thoughts, then we are getting internal hemming and hawing from Churchill.

The dialog does not sound authentic at all. Maggie's friends call her "Magster." I did some Googling but could not find the historical origins of that construct - maybe people did create "-ster" nicknames in the 1940s, but the rest of the dialog was also out of place, sounding like modern characters using 21st century reasoning and attitudes. Maggie's feminism is just one example. None of her friends blink at one of the male character's homosexuality. Okay, I am fine with a progressive, tolerant character in the 1940s because certainly such people did exist, but there is barely any awareness on any of their parts that this is actually not usual. Maggie sympathizes with her gay friend David and hopes someday he'll be able to be out in the open, but in the meantime it's just adorable that their other friend was trying to fix him up with a cute guy in their theater company.

Okay, Susan Elia MacNeal, you name-dropped Alan Turing in this book. Do you know what happened to Alan Turing? Because he was gay? David casually mentions that "people are still put in prison" for being "like that" (as he and Maggie put it), but it's an offhand remark, as if it's some rarely-enforced blue law of only theoretical danger. The juxtaposition was as ham-handed as MacNeal's invocation of the Nazis and their anti-Semitism. Maggie is horrified when she reads about the Nazis engaged in what amounted to some cruel hazing of Jewish villagers - making old ladies climb into trees and chirp like birds, making men strip and shave themselves. Yes, those are horrible humiliations, but, you know, the Nazis kind of did much worse things, but this is as much "darkness" as the author dares confront her heroine with. It's like she was writing a Young Adult novel.

The plot involves an IRA terrorist joining a Nazi fifth columnist in a plot to "destroy England." Yes, that is their stated goal - "destroying England." Like one or two acts of terrorism will literally destroy a country. They have no personalities either, they are just generic Evil Nazi Bad Guy and Evil IRA Bad Guy.

Maggie is involved thanks to a really dumb twist involving her friends, and of course because she is Winston Churchill's secretary, and this leads to her big Family Secret, which is as stupid as the villains' plan. Maggie finally does break a couple of codes. Guess what super-secret cover term the Nazis use for their plan to assassinate Churchill? "Operation Naval Person." For their plan targeting Maggie's father, Mr. Hope? "Operation Hope." For their plan targeting St. Paul's Cathedral? "Operation Paul." Then they cleverly encrypt these codenames with simple substitution ciphers that Maggie can crack in her head. Those wily Nazis.

Look not to this feminist protagonist by a feminist author for particularly feminist portrayals of women. They mostly giggle, cry, blush, and speak shrilly and hysterically when not trilling or fluttering. They let men simply walk up to them and take their guns away (she's pointing it at him!) and all the "bad" women break down in tears and horror when they realize that Nazis and IRA terrorists are actually bad people.

I mean, by the end I was just at a loss, because structurally, there was nothing that should have made this a horrible book. Okay, the villains' plot was stupid, the historical portrayal of Churchill is iffy, the characters were cliched and overly cutesy, but all of that could be read as genre affectation and a debut writer. But at every turn, on every page, I was confronted with what seemed like an absolute disregard for any care with control over dialog, with maintaining consistent POVs, with actually describing things to us instead of simply telling us who is thinking and feeling what and what just happened and, in many cases, what will happen next. I have read books whose writing style turned me off, or which contained howlers of purple prose or absurd descriptions, or which were just plain incompetently edited, and books with plots that dove into the deep-end of crazy or characters who were completely unlikable for reasons other than what the author intended. But this is the first book I've read in a long time that just made me wonder "How did this get published and why do people like it?" It reads like a first (maybe second) draft I would rip to shreds in a critique group (probably more nicely than I ripped it up in this review, since it's already been published so too late to improve it now, y'know?)

The cliches, gads, the cliches. Stiff upper lips and 'carry on' and YES YES I KNOW BRITISH AMERICANS TEA COFFEE HAR HAR HAR. When not trying to be cute, MacNeal educates us about history by dropping tidbits about contemporary events which must have taken her all of five minutes to dig up on Wikipedia.

Rage is probably not such an apt description. Bafflement? Dismay? How did this escape a writer's workshop? Or an editor's desk? It's just banal, lowest-common denominator genre drek that ruins a perfectly decent premise.

Verdict: Die in a fire, Maggie Hope. (That's the character. I am not wishing harm upon the author. Obscurity, ignominy, a career change, yes, but not harm.) This book is an insulting product of fanfiction-quality writing (YES I GET THE IRONY AND YES I WILL THROW STONES) and laziness. It could have been a brilliant story with an engaging protagonist... if it weren't crap. Someone else who's read it tell me I'm crazy, or that I'm not. :\

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books that fail, history, mystery, reviews

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