I thought this book would be about cryptography and codebreaking in World War II. I expected Bletchley Park and Alan Turing and Nazi double-agents, with a female mathematician as the protagonist, which sounded cool... maybe something like a light cozy version of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon
Alas, no. This was a "cozy" of the most offensively stupid and badly-written kind. Characters who are just quirky/"charming" composites of personality traits (expect many, many recyclings of British/American stereotypes vis-a-vis tea and coffee) and nicknames, arbitrary name-dropping of historical figures and events, usually accompanied by long infodumps to remind us that this is taking place in England during World War II ('cause the title wasn't a big enough clue), and cardboard villains (Nazis and IRA terrorists who practically twirl their mustaches while cackling over England's demise). A male character is introduced as "enigmatic" and "frustrating" (and yes, we're just told
he's enigmatic and frustrating, he never actually does
anything enigmatic or frustrating) - i.e., DESIGNATED LOVE INTEREST in great big flashing letters, but not content to leave any cliche unplumbed to its depths, sure enough, he and the main character spend most of the book snapping at each other and declaring one another to be insufferable and impossible and annoying while giving each other looks accompanied by "unexpected" hot flushes at Significant Times.
Maggie Hope ("Magster" to her friends - seriously, was that even done in the 40s?) is British by birth, born in London to British parents, but raised in America by a college professor aunt after her parents died in a car crash. With a PhD in mathematics, Maggie returns to London to sell her grandmother's house, just as World War II begins. By various contrived circumstances, Maggie winds up as a typist/secretary to Winston Churchill himself, by which device the author recites verbatim many of Churchill's speeches, inserting some adoring commentary from Maggie. We also get an extraordinarily cutesy take on Churchill as a fictional non-fictional character, which the publishers have the nerve to call "psychological insight into Winston Churchill," just like they call this book "meticulously researched" because MacNeal mentions Alan Turing (in a single sentence) and makes an allusion to Rebecca
by Daphne du Maurier. (I guess MacNeal thought she was being clever by showing she can read Wikipedia
Oddly enough, though Maggie's aunt is a lesbian and one of her British friends (who works with her at Downing St.) is gay, this is something that is just accepted with open-minded tolerance by Maggie and her friends, along with cheery hopes that someday he won't have to keep it a secret. That's about as far as the book goes in addressing the very real persecution of homosexuality that existed at that time — you'd think if the author is going to name-drop Alan Turing, who was later forced to undergo chemical castration because of his homosexuality and ended up committing suicide (hey, Susan MacNeal, that's on Wikipedia too
!), she might have had the characters acknowledge that homosexuality was actually a rather serious secret to be harboring. But no, the gay characters apparently exist only to show us how open-minded Maggie is and to score the author some gay-inclusion points.
Maggie is a mathematician and we are frequently told how brilliant she is, which is mostly an excuse for her to go on periodic rants about how unfair it is that she's not allowed to be a codebreaker and is relegated to being a typist and how sexist society is and how sexist her coworkers are blah blah blah. Okay, fair enough, it was
a very sexist time period and no doubt a smart university-educated woman like Maggie would have been very aware of and irritated by this, but her repeatedly getting up on a soapbox to tell us that England in the 1940s was sexist and the sky is blue do not feel historical or even appropriate for her circumstances, just an excuse for the author to show us how very feisty and feminist her character is. Her friends mostly just kind of nod and say "Gosh, you're right Maggie, oh, hey, what is Winston Churchill really like?"
Maggie also decides she's either American or British whenever it suits her. When her friends or coworkers question her dedication or trustworthiness because of her American upbringing, she loudly tells them she's British by birth and a British taxpayer and a British homeowner and British
, dammit! But when they start criticizing America, she defends the US and complains about the UK and doesn't correct them when they refer to Roosevelt as "your
Does Maggie ever use her codebreaking skills? Yeah, kind of, at the level of a 12-year-old cracking his first alphanumeric-substitution cipher.
The plot involved a really stupid Nazi/IRA plan to assassinate Churchill and some "surprise twists" that are pretty lame (and also spelled out for us beforehand by the author's constant "telling"), but it still could have been moderately entertaining anachronistic brain candy if the writing hadn't been so terrible.
Ever heard the writing advice "show don't tell"? You have if you've ever flirted with writing even a little. Mr. Churchill's Secretary
could be a case study in how to tell without showing. We are told that everyone is very inspired by Churchill's speeches. We are told that the British bravely face the Blitz. We are told that this or that major event happened. We are constantly told what characters are thinking and feeling, in lieu of having them actually say
it or act like it. When a character dies, we are told they died. The book is also full of head-hopping by a third-person narrator who can't decide whether she wants to be close-third or omniscient. Really, I could not believe this book got published, the writing was so bad.
It doesn't help that all the women are constantly "shrill," "hysterical," "trilling," and their eyes are constantly filling with hot tears on every other page. There's your "feminism" for you. The female characters are also the ones who break down, the female villains are the ones who are easily overpowered - I mean, at one point someone walks into a room and just walks over and takes a gun from a woman holding it pointed at someone else because... she's a woman and couldn't actually be a threat, with a gun? And of course they are also the ones who have second thoughts and end up abandoning their cause when they find out that gosh, Nazis and IRA terrorists are actually bad people who do bad things - why they never imagined
that things might get ugly!
Just bleah, bleah, bleah. A dumb story without a spark of originality or nuance, and offensively bad writing. And this is the first in a series. No, I will not
be reading the sequels. If you're looking for an exciting tale of a codebreaking female special agent in World War II, don't get suckered like I was, because this book is mindless and poorly crafted. 1.5 stars, the half star because the story is kind of okay for what it is, but I am rounding down instead of up like I usually do because I have read fan fiction and rough drafts written better than this and I am depressed that this book got published.