Now with the elite Special Operations Executive, Maggie continues her somewhat maverick approach to acts of derring-do on behalf of His Majesty with a two-pronged mission in Berlin. Unfortunately, most of the people she encounters during her exploits there fail to come alive on the page. Add to that less-than-convincing mission details and some entirely-too-coincidental meet-ups, and this adventure just doesn't measure up. But MacNeal has already proven that she has what it takes in this genre, so I'll continue to hope for good things in future Maggie Hope adventures.
Two additional notes: First, this book shouldn't really be called a mystery, since there is no mystery to be solved. Second, MacNeal shouldn't feel the need to rip off scenes from tv shows, although I'm sure it was entirely an unconscious thing on her part. She chose one of my favorite scenes from an excellent show (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but I was still very disappointed. Her writing is strong enough without resorting to copying, even from the greats.(less)
In my review of Winston Churchill's Secretary, the first of the Maggie Hope books, I said that the series showed promise as MacNeal settled into her t...moreIn my review of Winston Churchill's Secretary, the first of the Maggie Hope books, I said that the series showed promise as MacNeal settled into her talents as a writer. With this second installment, MacNeal is certainly starting to live up to that promise. Although some of the language is still a bit clunky (and there are far too many mentions of birds), the story itself flows much more smoothly than it did in the first book and MacNeal takes fewer shortcuts to get her characters in and out of situations.
Newly installed with MI-5, Maggie Hope is placed at Windsor Castle at Christmas in 1940. Posing as Princess Elizabeth's math tutor, she is really there to ferret out a possible plot against the future queen's life. Descriptions of life at Windsor Castle during this period are well-done, and glimpses of historical personages are clearly well-researched. Once again, MacNeal does an excellent job bringing to life a fascinating aspect of Britain during WWII, while at the same time allowing Maggie to grow as a character and as a spy. I look forward to reading more!(less)
This book got off to a very promising start for me. Nayman's initial narrator (Oscar) said something that gave me an instant feeling of connection. Bu...moreThis book got off to a very promising start for me. Nayman's initial narrator (Oscar) said something that gave me an instant feeling of connection. But, after only a few pages with this narrator, and just as things are starting to get interesting, we are abruptly thrust into a new time and place, and given a narrator (Christine) with whom I not only felt no connection, but couldn't even bring myself to be really interested in at all. I was so turned off by this section of the book, that I had a hard time feeling any investment in the the next section, even though I felt at least some connection with this third narrator (Marilyn). Both Christine and Marilyn hint at some dark secret from Oscar's past that they think they know, though both do it in such a jumpy, pseudo-tantalizing fashion that by the time we hear Oscar's voice again I was more relieved that all the games were coming to an end than actually interested in what the secret was.
It's a shame that the story felt so herky-jerky, because I think that if Nayman had kept Oscar's voice as the sole narrator throughout the book her story would have had the emotional impact she was going for. Instead, by throwing in so many extraneous plot points and red herrings (Christine's opium addiction and Marilyn's conflicting feelings about her wartime photography, among others) she's declawed what could have been a powerful story.(less)
This book should have been a fun read. It deals with some of the most interesting aspects of WWII-era London including cryptography and Churchill's of...moreThis book should have been a fun read. It deals with some of the most interesting aspects of WWII-era London including cryptography and Churchill's offices at 10 Downing St. and adds the little-discussed element of IRA activity in London during this time. Unfortunately, the book's numerous flaws overshadow the positive aspects. MacNeal takes several shortcuts to get characters were she needs them and to move the narrative along.
However, as the first book in a projected series about Maggie Hope, it shows promise. As MacNeal settles into her narrative talents (which are certainly evident, despite this book's shortcomings), she will figure out to avoid the pitfalls of narrative convenience and lovers of strong female detectives in historical fiction will have another series to become engrossed in.(less)
In order for a narrative conceit to work, it can't get in the way of the story. In this book, de Rosnay employs two conceits, one of which, alternatin...moreIn order for a narrative conceit to work, it can't get in the way of the story. In this book, de Rosnay employs two conceits, one of which, alternating chapters between 1942 and present day, works fairly well. Unfortunately, I felt like I was continuously tripping over the other conceit, that of referring to the main character of the historical chapters as "the girl". It seems completely unnecessary to refer to her that way, since the reader can easily guess her name, and it's eventual revelation is completely anticlimactic. Ditto for the revelation of the name of "the child" later in the book.
The story itself is engaging, if somewhat predictable. Certainly, de Rosnay is to be given credit for bringing to light a part of the Holocaust - the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup in Paris - that gets little attention. She's not exactly subtle about it, but her point is well-taken.(less)
The entire time I was reading this book, I felt like I was missing something, like it was the sequel to a book I hadn't read. Relationships were writt...moreThe entire time I was reading this book, I felt like I was missing something, like it was the sequel to a book I hadn't read. Relationships were written as though there was a lot of tension between characters, but nothing was developed enough (either in the backstory or the present story) for me to really care about where the tension came from, or whether it got resolved. Most of the characters seemed to just drift through the story, occasionally colliding with each other in encounters that were evidently supposed to be very weighty, but really just seemed like random plot devices. I think Kluge was aiming for high drama, but only managed to give us melodrama.(less)
When an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they make a choice about the voice of the novel as a whole. The interior dialogue of a na...moreWhen an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they make a choice about the voice of the novel as a whole. The interior dialogue of a narrator must match their exterior dialogue. If the two don't match up, it detracts from the credibility of the character and the overall readability of the novel. The disparity between inner and outer voice is especially striking when the character speaks in dialect, as is the case here. The narrative switches among 4 characters, two native Englishpeople, and two who have moved from Jamaica to England. One of the Jamaicans speaks in a strong dialect, while the other is quite proud of her "King's English" even though she often finds that English shopkeepers don't understand a word she says. And yet the interior voice of both of these characters is largely the same as each other, and the same as the other two narrators. I found this disparity distracted a lot from the story.(less)
Almost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank. Far fewer people know the story of one of the men who hid her and her family from the Gestapo for 2 yea...moreAlmost everyone knows the story of Anne Frank. Far fewer people know the story of one of the men who hid her and her family from the Gestapo for 2 years. The mere fact of having his story of bravery be told makes this book worthwhile.
Victor Kugler's story shines brightest when told in his own voice. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Large portions of the book are taken from the notes of Eda Shapiro, who interviewed Kugler late in his life. This is fine, as far as it goes, but Shapiro's words are also used to give us historical background information on topics such as WWII and the history of Jews in Holland. Surely a more authoritative source could have been found for these subjects.
At least this historical background is interesting. Not so the rest of the book's padding, including descriptions of various dramatic and musical productions of Anne Frank's story that Kugler attended and his reaction to them, and descriptions awards and honors that Kugler was given, including his inclusion among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, all well-deserved. I could have lived with a lot less of this extraneous material, especially since Kugler's story stands so well on its own.
FTC disclaimer: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for this review.(less)
When reading a book in translation, it's always hard to tell whether any awkwardness in the text comes from the original or the translation. And there...moreWhen reading a book in translation, it's always hard to tell whether any awkwardness in the text comes from the original or the translation. And there's a lot of awkwardness in this story, though not all of it can be attributed to problems in translation. Some of the awkwardness could go either way, such as the stilted dialogue (I understand that recreating dialogue in a memoir can be problematic, but I think most readers would agree that ease of reading trumps efforts to be strictly faithful to events, as long as gist and meaning are maintained).
Other kinds of awkwardness are easier to pinpoint, such as when the author tells us that she wishes she had broached the subject of her father earlier so that she would have had an opportunity to talk to his friends who are now either dead or past the point where she can talk to them about their memories of her father. This would indeed be unfortunate, except that throughout the book we are repeatedly given the memories of several of her father's friends, given, we are told, directly from them to her.
This extensive awkwardness is a very unfortunate factor in what otherwise could have been a very good read. The author's quest to find her father, lost during the Holocaust, is a very interesting subject, but this book would have benefited greatly from either a ghost writer, or a better editor, or both.(less)
One good thing about this book is the particular aptness of its title. The book is not just about what happened, but about what Evie saw (or what she...moreOne good thing about this book is the particular aptness of its title. The book is not just about what happened, but about what Evie saw (or what she allowed herself to see), and yes, how she lied about both what happened and what she saw.
Not to worry, though, there are plenty of other good things about this book. It’s a good story, for one thing, and engagingly told. Evie is a well-written character. Her level of denial in parts of the book is a bit frustrating, but Blundell writes this aspect of her character, as well as how it changes, very realistically.
I have two fairly small criticisms: first, I'm not sure why Blundell chose to set this book in the early fall. Maybe so the timing of the hurricane would be more realistic? The problem is that by having Evie's family's sudden jaunt to Florida take place at the beginning of September, Evie misses the start of school, which nobody seems to care very much about (although there are a few mentions of how she's supposed to be studying on her own in Florida). Second, post-WWII slang is dispensed so judiciously as to seem forced. Either people use slang, or they don't. But even I must admit that these are nitpicky criticisms, and fade in comparison to the story itself.(less)
Epistolary novels can be such fun to read, and this one is certainly no exception. The technique of using the exchange of letters to tell the story al...moreEpistolary novels can be such fun to read, and this one is certainly no exception. The technique of using the exchange of letters to tell the story allows the author to use each character's voice in an authentic way that traditional story-telling doesn't usually allow. In tone, I found this book similar to the delightful 84, Charing Cross Road. Juliet, the main character, or main letter-writer as the case may be, has a guileless voice that was a pleasure to read.
The one false note I found in this story was the ease with which the Guernsey Islanders allowed Juliet to adopt Kit (both literally and figuratively). That Kit herself should take to Juliet as well as she does I did not find surprising, as one can clearly tell from her letters that she is the kind of person children like (and, yes, that is high praise). But for a group as insular as the Islanders declare themselves to be, and as protective of and attached to Kit as the Literary Society was, to give Kit over to Juliet after only a few months acquaintance, did not ring as true as the rest of the story did.
Other than that, I loved this book. Each character has a distinct voice, and I wanted to be able to exchange letters with them all myself.(less)
The master butcher's singing club of the title doesn't really figure into this book at all. Fidelis, the master butcher in question, does start a sin...more The master butcher's singing club of the title doesn't really figure into this book at all. Fidelis, the master butcher in question, does start a singing group in his new home of Argus, North Dakota, that's meant to reflect the master butcher's singing club he was a part of back in Germany, as a place where outside grievances can be set aside.
But this story is really about Delphine, a native of, though an outsider in, Argus. It's about her relationship with men, sort of, but really about what she discovers when she meets Eva, Fidelis's wife. In Eva, Delphine discovers the mother she never had, as well as a best friend. That Delphine comes to love Eva's family as her own is fortunate when Eva is struck with a massive tumor. Delphine nurses her until her death and then cares for Fidelis and their sons.
All of this makes for a story that is lovingly told. What threw me for a loop, though, was at the very end of the book when the truth about Delphine's mother is revealed to the reader, but not to Delphine herself. Although I was vaguely interested to have this mystery cleared up, I don't really think it was necessary to the story at all. By including it at the end, it seemed as though we were supposed to think that this revelation was the whole point of the story, rather than an incidental part of the character Delphine became. The answer provided excellent closure to the story as a whole, but part of me wishes Erdrich had finished the book without it.(less)