Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan



From the bestselling author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a thrilling new WWII story about a village busybody—the mighty Mrs. Braithwaite—who resolves to find, and then rescue, her missing daughter

Mrs. Braithwaite, self-appointed queen of her English village, finds herself dethroned, despised, and dismissed following her husband’s selfish divorce petition. Never deterred, the threat of a family secret being revealed sets her hot-foot to London to find the only person she has left—her clever daughter Betty, who took work there at the first rumbles of war.

But when she arrives, Betty’s landlord, the timid Mr. Norris, informs her that Betty hasn’t been home in days–with the chaos of the bombs, there’s no telling what might have befallen her. Aghast, Mrs. Braithwaite sets her bullish determination to the task of finding her only daughter.

Storming into the London Blitz, Mrs. Braithwaite drags the reluctant Mr. Norris along as an unwitting sidekick as they piece together Betty’s unexpectedly chaotic life. As she is thrown into the midst of danger and death, Mrs. Braithwaite is forced to rethink her old-fashioned notions of status, class, and reputation, and to reconsider the question that’s been puzzling her since her world overturned: How do you measure the success of your life?

Readers will be charmed by the unforgettable Mrs. Braithwaite and her plucky, ruthless optimism, and find in The Spies of Shilling Lane a novel with surprising twists and turns, quiet humor, and a poignant examination of mothers and daughters and the secrets we keep. 

Jennifer Ryan is the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, one of my favorite reads of the past couple of years — and she strikes gold yet again with her newest novel, The Spies of Shilling Lane. Here, we meet the intimidating Mrs. Braithwaite, pushed out of her leadership position with her village women’s volunteer corps after one too many criticisms and commands aimed at the other women. Feeling utterly rejected, Mrs. Braithwaite decides to go visit her 21-year-old daughter Betty, who left the village to take up a clerical position in London, seeking excitement and a sense of purpose during wartime.

However, when Mrs. Braithwaite arrives at Betty’s lodging house, she finds out that no one has seen her daughter in at least four days, and while no one else seems particularly panicked, Mrs. Braithwaite is sure that Betty must need rescuing. And nobody stands between Mrs. Braithwaite and her daughter! She sets out to find her daughter, coercing poor Mr. Norris to help her out, and uses her cyclone energy to push, demand, and bully people into giving her information.

It turns out that her motherly instincts were indeed correct and Betty is in trouble, of a sort that Mrs. Braithwaite could not have anticipated. And despite the tumultuous, strained relationship between mother and daughter, Mrs. Braithwaite charges into action to save Betty, only to end up needing saving in return.

What follows is a rollicking adventure, full of can-do spirit as well as intrigue and double-crossing. Mrs. Braithwaite is an absolute delight as a main character. How many books do we get to read that feature a 50-something-year-old proper Englishwoman as an action hero? She is just a force of nature, and will not let anyone stand in the way of her taking care of her daughter. Of course, Betty is far from helpless, as Mrs. Braithwaite learns, and between the two of them, we see a pair of strong women whose courage makes a difference in the British war effort.

The Spies of Shilling Lane has a light-hearted feel at times, as the action sequences aren’t simply smooth Jame Bond maneuvers, but rather are full of errors and accidents and fumbling about. Mrs. Braithwaite and Mr. Norris are such an unlikely pair of secret agents, tracking down clues, picking locks, and befriending the local criminal element, all in pursuit of a rather nasty bunch of evil-doers. At the same time, the reflections on the mother-daughter relationship, the pressures of societal expectations, and the damage that can be done by overbearing family members are all well described and add resonance to the characters’ feelings and reactions.

It’s also incredibly harrowing and moving to see the air raids and the devastation that results, and I first found myself really loving Mrs. Braithwaite because of her interactions with an injured young woman whom she discovers as she’s searching for Betty.

All in all, I’d say that The Spies of Shilling Lane is an excellent look at remarkable women during wartime. There are plenty of moments that made me smile, as well as scenes of tension and suspense. Mrs. Braithwaite is so delightful — I’d love to read about more of her adventures!

If you enjoy women-centered historical fiction, definitely check this one out!

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The details:

Title: The Spies of Shilling Lane
Author: Jennifer Ryan
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 4, 2019
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone


From the New York Times bestselling author of The Expats. Kate Moore is back in a pulse-pounding thriller to discover that a massive terror attack across Paris is not what it seems – and that it involves her family

American expat Kate Moore drops her kids at the international school, makes her rounds of chores, and meets her husband Dexter at their regular café a leisurely start to a normal day, St-Germain-des-Pres.

Across the Seine, tech CEO Hunter Forsyth stands on his balcony, wondering why his police escort just departed, and frustrated that his cell service has cut out; Hunter has important calls to make, not all of them technically legal.

And on the nearby rue de Rivoli, Mahmoud Khalid climbs out of an electrician’s van and elbows his way into the crowded courtyard of the world’s largest museum. He sets down his metal briefcase, and removes his windbreaker.

That’s when people start to scream.

Everyone has big plans for the day. Dexter is going to make a small fortune, finally digging himself out of a deep financial hole, via an extremely risky investment. Hunter is going to make a huge fortune, with a major corporate acquisition that will send his company’s stock soaring. Kate has less ambitious plans: preparations for tonight’s dinner party–one of those homemaker obligations she still hasn’t embraced, even after a half-decade of this life–and an uneventful workday at the Paris Substation, the clandestine cadre of operatives that she’s been running, not entirely successfully, increasingly convinced that every day could be the last of her career. But every day is also a fresh chance to prove her own relevance, never more so than during today’s momentous events.

And Mahmoud? He is planning to die today. And he won’t be the only one.

The Paris Diversion is author Chris Pavone’s follow-up to his 2012 debut, The Expats. In The Expats, we meet Kate Moore, a former secret agent now living a life of domestic boredom as a wife and mother while her husband engages in some shady high finance dealings. The book is terrific and tense and surprising, so definitely check that one out!

Now years later, we re-meet Kate living in Paris, her boys a few years older, her husband mildly to incredibly annoying, and her career back in full-swing, running her own espionage bureau with only the loosest of ties to the US government.

The Paris Diversion takes place over one very dramatic day, as Kate and husband Dexter prepare for a dinner party — and a complicated plot revolving around terror threats and corporate sabotage unfolds in the city around them. As Kate plunges into action, unable to convince herself to stay on the sidelines, it becomes clear that Dexter’s hands may not be entirely clean. Meanwhile, we meet the various players in this international web of intrigue, some bit players, some criminal masterminds, and some merely pawns who find themselves useful or expendable in different ways.

The plot of The Paris Diversion is complicated, but not impenetrable, and hooked me right from the start. It’s interesting to get inside the mind of Kate Moore, a woman with pretty typical worries about aging and career and family, plus others hopefully less familiar to most women — do I have the right weapons? am I being followed? is my disguise in place? how many people will I have to kill today? The book starts off as a thriller about terrorism, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s much more going on than meets the eye, and the final puzzle pieces don’t click into place until the very last pages of the novel.

Do you need to read The Expats first? Not necessarily? I think The Paris Diversion would work perfectly well on its own — there’s enough backstory provided about the characters and their lives, so it shouldn’t be hard to for someone to fully enjoy The Paris Diversion on its own merits. Still, if you’re so inclined, I’d definitely recommend reading The Expats as a starting place. Kate is a fascinating character, so why not start with her first appearance?

I’ve read all three of Chris Pavone’s previous novels, and thought they were all excellent. I don’t tend to read a lot of spy thrillers, but these books absolutely work for me!

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The details:

Title: The Paris Diversion
Author: Chris Pavone
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Length: 374 pages
Genre: Spy thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Disappointment between the covers: On reading Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

If you’ve visited my blog at all during the last few months, you’ve probably seen me gushing over the series of fantasy books by Tamora Pierce that I’ve been listening to obsessively. These three quartets, all set in the kingdom of Tortall, feature brave young women finding their own unique strengths and showing courage under fire as well as compassion to those in need. I loved, loved, loved these books, and vowed to keep going until I’d read EVERYTHING set in Tortall.

That vow still holds, but this post will be a temporary break from the gushy lovefest.

I’ve been following story as well as publishing chronology, so after finishing the outstanding Protector of the Small quartet, my next adventure was to be the Daughter of the Lioness duology, starring Alianne, the 16-year-old daughter of Alanna, Tamora Pierce’s first heroine (and Tortall’s first Lady Knight).

I knew I was in trouble almost immediately. I’ve been listening to the audiobook for all of these series… but within the first few chapters of listening to book #1, Trickster’s Choice, I was hopelessly lost. So much exposition! It felt like I was being bombarded with thousands of names (people, places, historical figures), with no firm grounding in action to help keep track. I made the quick, tactical decision to switch to print, hoping that having the ability to flip back and forth and to refer to the maps and cast of characters listing in the print edition might help. Well… I suppose it helped a bit, but the essence of the story didn’t change, and that became a problem for me.

So what’s it all about?

Here’s the Goodreads summary for Trickster’s Choice:

The Future is in the hands of the next generation.

Aly: a slave with the talents of a master spy, a fabled lineage she must conceal, and the dubious blessing of a trickster god.

Sarai: a passionate, charming teenage noblewoman who, according to prophecy, will bring an end to a cruel dynasty.

Dove: the younger sister of Sarai; she has a calculating mind and hidden depths that have yet to be plumbed.

Nawat: a magical young man with a strangely innocent outlook and an even stranger past; Aly’s one true friend in a world where trust can cost you your life.

Aly is short for Alianne, daughter of Alanna the Lioness and George Cooper, Alanna’s husband and the spymaster of Tortall. Aly has been taught the tricks and secrets of the spy trade since infancy, but at age 16, she’s restless and wants to get out into the field, which her parents oppose. She sneaks out on her own to go boating and promptly gets kidnapped by pirates, who sell her into slavery in the nearby kingdom of the Copper Isles.

The Copper Isles are plagued by centuries of unrest between the ruling luarin (white) nobility and the down-trodden (brown-skinned, native) raka people. Aly becomes a slave in a noble household under suspicion from the reigning monarch. The trickster god Kyprioth, the god of the Copper Isles, enlists Aly in a plan to help raise a rebellion. And the adventure is underway.

I had a very hard time with this book. I was half-bored through most of it. As I mentioned, it’s a lot of people and places, but I didn’t connect with most of the characters. For a story about rebellion, the plot has some seriously slow points. But the chief problem I have with the story is Aly herself. She’s just too skillful and knowledgeable about being a spy. Yes, she comes from an espionage family, but she’s never been an agent or seen active duty. She never falters, never lacks the ability to carry out her ideas, and pretty much never screws up.

One of the things that makes the other Tortall quartets so special is seeing the main characters evolve from young, untrained youths who work and fight to fulfill their potential. Here in Trickster’s Choice, Aly already is who she is. There’s no learning curve, no doubt, and very little introspection.

And that’s not even addressing the social issues that are so problematic, which are talked about quite a bit in the many reviews to be found on Goodreads. Basically, this white, privileged girl from noble background has to swoop in to lead the native people to an uprising, which they apparently couldn’t manage without her. On top of which, when given the chance at freedom, Aly chooses to maintain her enslaved status in order to provide better cover for her mission from Kyprioth, which seems to imply that being enslaved maybe has a purpose. All of this made me very uncomfortable.

Oh, and the love interest is a crow who’s turned himself into a man and is learning to be human. Awkward.

I finished this book with a great sense of frustration and discontent… so why did I continue? Yes, despite my fairly unhappy time reading Trickster’s Choice, I went straight on to Trickster’s Queen, hoping for a stronger second act in the Daughter of the Lioness story.

In Trickster’s Queen:

The stage is set for revolution…

Aly: no longer just a master spy, but a master of spies. Can she balance her passion for justice and her compassion for others, and at what cost?

Sarai: beautiful, dramatic, and rash – will she fulfill the role chosen for her by destiny?

Dove: she has always stood in Sarai’s shadow. Can she prove to the world that she herself is a force to be reckoned with?

Nawat: half crow, half man. He wants Aly for his life mate, but will the revolution make that impossible as they step into new roles to change the future?

Suddenly, Aly is a spymaster. She pulls the strings and directs her pack of spies and their recruits, teaching spycraft and strategy, plotting with the raka rebellion leaders, and instigating high-stakes sabotage throughout the kingdom in an effort to undermine and destabilize the ruling monarchs.

And my frustration continues. How does Aly possibly have the skills to do all this? It makes no sense. And if I had to see Aly referring to her spies as “my children” or “dear ones” one more time, I was going to smack her.

I won’t go too far into story developments or resolutions. The book is sloooooow for a very long time, basically just a recounting of spy tactics and information gathering, over and over and over, until the actual battle takes place at the very end. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of bloodshed (and I’m not sure how we’re meant to feel about that), the fairly casual murder of children, and a befuddlingly huge number of named characters, when frankly, not every single spy, servant, or noble who shows up in a scene needs a name. It’s all just too much.

Argh. It’s so crushing to go from absolutely amazing books (like Protector of the Small) to such a let-down in the continuation of the overarching story.

I really did come close to quitting quite a few times, but I do want to continue with the Tortall books, and I still have a trilogy, a book of stories, and the 1st book in a new series to go. What if the people or events from the Trickster books end up mattering down the road? Call it bookish FOMO, but I forced myself… unhappily… to finish.

I will be moving on to the Beka Cooper trilogy fairly soon, once the library’s audiobooks become available. And once I get through all of my Tortallian TBR list, I’ll be able to better state whether Aly’s books are skippable. For future readers’ sakes, I hope that they are!

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Book details:

The Daughter of the Lioness duology:
Trickster’s Choice – published 2003
Trickster’s Queen – published 2004
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Take A Peek Book Review: The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Cassandra Bowden is no stranger to hungover mornings. She’s a binge drinker, her job with the airline making it easy to find adventure, and the occasional blackouts seem to be inevitable. She lives with them, and the accompanying self-loathing. When she awakes in a Dubai hotel room, she tries to piece the previous night back together, already counting the minutes until she has to catch her crew shuttle to the airport. She quietly slides out of bed, careful not to aggravate her already pounding head, and looks at the man she spent the night with. She sees his dark hair. His utter stillness. And blood, a slick, still wet pool on the crisp white sheets. Afraid to call the police–she’s a single woman alone in a hotel room far from home–Cassie begins to lie. She lies as she joins the other flight attendants and pilots in the van. She lies on the way to Paris as she works the first class cabin. She lies to the FBI agents in New York who meet her at the gate. Soon it’s too late to come clean-or face the truth about what really happened back in Dubai. Could she have killed him? If not, who did?

My Thoughts:

I’m usually a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s novels, but The Flight Attendant was only so-so for me. Maybe it’s the premise itself: A woman with a history of drinking until she blacks out wakes up in a strange bed beside a dead body. I feel like I’ve seen this before, either in movies or TV shows. And maybe it’s just the fact that I’m not a big fan of thrillers, so it takes a really unusual and exceptional one to draw me in.

In any case, the story was engaging and kept my attention, but it still felt like a fairly flat reading experience. I had a hard time sympathizing with Cassie. If ever there’s someone who could be described as her own worst enemy, Cassie is it. Between drinking, sleeping around, and lying, it’s no wonder Cassie finds herself in a world of trouble. The only surprise is that it’s taken this long for her drinking problem to get her into something that can’t be laughed off or talked away.

I found the espionage aspects of the novel somewhat impenetrable. The details didn’t really come together for me, although I suppose if I’d been more interested, I could have tried harder to follow the ins and outs. Still, it’s really Cassie’s story that matters, and I followed all of that just fine. The ending was a bit pat, despite a few surprises.

Chris Bohjalian is an amazing author and I’ve loved so many of his books. This one, however, was mostly a miss for me, although I can see it being of much greater appeal to readers who really enjoy the thriller genre.

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The details:

Title: The Flight Attendant
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #2: The Accident

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Instead of looking ahead to upcoming new releases, Shelf Control focuses on already released books that I want to read. Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, books that are either on my shelves or on my Kindle!

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

The AccidentTitle: The Accident
Author: Chris Pavone
Published: 2014
Length: 416 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

From the author of the New York Times-bestselling and Edgar Award-winning The Expats

As dawn approaches in New York, literary agent Isabel Reed is turning the final pages of a mysterious, anonymous manuscript, racing through the explosive revelations about powerful people, as well as long-hidden secrets about her own past. In Copenhagen, veteran CIA operative Hayden Gray, determined that this sweeping story be buried, is suddenly staring down the barrel of an unexpected gun. And in Zurich, the author himself is hiding in a shadowy expat life, trying to atone for a lifetime’s worth of lies and betrayals with publication of The Accident, while always looking over his shoulder.

Over the course of one long, desperate, increasingly perilous day, these lives collide as the book begins its dangerous march toward publication, toward saving or ruining careers and companies, placing everything at risk—and everyone in mortal peril.  The rich cast of characters—in publishing and film, politics and espionage—are all forced to confront the consequences of their ambitions, the schisms between their ideal selves and the people they actually became.

The action rockets around Europe and across America, with an intricate web of duplicities stretching back a quarter-century to a dark winding road in upstate New York, where the shocking truth about the accident itself is buried.

Gripping, sophisticated, layered, and impossible to put down, The Accident proves once again that Chris Pavone is a true master of suspense.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

A few months ago.

Why I want to read it:

I read this author’s first novel, The Expats, earlier this year, and thought it was a terrific espionage thriller (review). So not only am I excited to read more by Chris Pavone, but I’m also delighted to see that one of my favorite characters from The Expats appears in The Accident as well — and the fact that the plot has to do with a secret manuscript and publishing makes it even more appealing!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

 

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

Book Review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

ExpatsLooking for a fast-paced thriller for your beach bag? You can’t go wrong with The Expats.

The Expats is a spy thriller, a cat-and-mouse espionage tale… and the story of a marriage. Mixing spycraft with ruminations on trust, love, and family, this books is quirky and dramatic all at the same time.

Kate Moore is the main character, a wife and mother of two young boys… and a former CIA field operative who resigns from the Company when her computer geek husband Dexter receives a lucrative job offer than entails moving to Luxembourg for a year.

Kate becomes one of the expat moms — the women from all corners of the world, married to wealthy but very busy men, who congregate in coffee shops and tennis clubs while their children attend preschool, then plan family outings, ski trips, and shopping adventures all over Europe. It’s a great life… except Kate can’t help being just a wee bit bored. As a working mother, she was itching for more time with the family, but now that she has it, she finds the daily routine — cooking, cleaning, shopping, chauffering, playdates, endless mommy gossip — not quite as fulfilling as she’d hoped.

Meanwhile, Dexter is suddenly the absent parent, as his new job entails high-level, hush-hush work for private banks to ensure that their online security systems are unbreachable…. or so he says. Kate begins to suspect that something is just a little bit off about Dexter’s new job… and the new American couple who have befriended them seem to have more than just a friendly interest in worming their way into the Moores’ lives.

The timeline jumps back and forth between “today”, in Paris, as Kate is confronted by someone she thought she’d never see again, to two years ago, starting with Dexter’s announcement about his new job and following the couple and the children forward into their new lives in Europe. The two timelines converge by the end, of course, as bit by bit the many threads start to form a pattern and the bigger picture emerges. Added to that, we learn about Kate’s CIA background and the event that haunts her from her time as an operative, and all sorts of shades and nuances come into play.

And then there’s the fact that Kate has never told Dexter about her real line of work. As far as he knew, Kate was a State Department employee whose works entailed writing position papers. So how can Kate be angry with Dexter for hiding secrets from her when he spent the first ten years of their relationship in complete ignorance of her profession, not knowing such an important part of what made her tick?

As the clues pile up, there’s danger and drama, a few edge-of-the seat action sequences… and also trips to Ikea, playtime with the kids, and uncomfortable cocktail parties with other American expats. Kate is a terrific main character — smart, kick-ass, but tormented by her own set of demons; wanting to be a good wife and mother, but unable to completely come clean or to trust her husband. The plot twists and turns, there are complications galore, and small revelations in both timelines pile on top of each other to create a whole that’s a real thrill ride.

The Expats is fun and compelling, mixing spy drama with domesticity in a way that highlights the deceptions in everyday life and love. The characters are well-developed, the plot is convoluted enough that we can’t see all the answers before the author wants us to, and the cosmopolitan European setting gives the book a feeling that’s both dangerous and exotic.

This book was perfect for me on a long plane ride. It’s highly entertaining and very hard to put down. So if you’re looking for a great beach read for the summer, consider picking up The Expats!

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The details:

Title: The Expats
Author: Chris Pavone
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Length: 352 pages (paperback edition)
Genre: Espionage/thriller
Source: Purchased