The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan****

Sometimes what I really need is a feel-good story. Had I ascertained that this was that sort of book, I would have had it read by the publication date. I read the beginning twice, decided it was going to fall into the grim duty category since I had accepted a review copy, and I set it aside. My apologies go to Net Galley, Crown Books, and the author for my lateness; my heartfelt thanks go to Jayne Entwistle, the reader for the audio version of this lovely tale, for rekindling my interest. I procured the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons and listened to it while I rode my stationary bike and prepared dinner in the evenings. I began listening to it because I owed a review, but soon I found that I preferred this novel to the other good book I had been listening to just for pleasure.

Our story begins with Mrs. Braithwaite feeling injured and put upon. Her husband is divorcing her, and the women in the local charity club have banded together and ousted her from her treasured position of leadership. She is miserable. Betty, her only child, has run off to London, intent upon aiding her country now that the second World War is upon them, and she isn’t answering her calls. Mrs. Braithwaite decides to visit her, but upon arrival, she discovers that Betty is missing. The story flows from her effort to find her daughter and also herself.

Those seeking an espionage thriller won’t find it here; the story is character based, and in this Ryan succeeds richly. Mrs. Braithwaite enlists the reluctant assistance of Mr. Norris, Betty’s milquetoast landlord, and it is these two characters that are wonderfully developed. None of this would have been achieved without the spot-on cultural insights regarding the World War II generation. The shallower pop-cultural references to music are well and good, but Ryan goes deeper. The fact that the character is known only by her formal title, with the salutary “Mrs.” in place of a first name, speaks not only to the protagonist’s dignified, somewhat cold façade, but also to the practices of the time. Use of first names was considered an intimacy among the elders of this time period; women addressed their peers by it unless they were close friends or family members. Even the way that the plot develops is reminiscent of the fiction and movies of that generation. As in most good historical fiction, the setting mingles with the characters to move the plot forward.

I am not much of a cozy mystery fan, but I think this story would please cozy readers. At the same time, I appreciate the careful balance the author uses; the touching moments are deftly handled, never becoming cloying or maudlin. At other times there’s a playful, spoofing quality to it, as Mrs. Braithwaite and Betty search for each other, each fearing the other is in danger and thus placing herself in it.

I recommend this book to cozy readers, fans of historical fiction, and anyone in need of a boost in morale. It’s for sale now.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow, by Susan Perabo****

thefalloflisabellowI was fortunate enough to score a DRC of this suspenseful novel from Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s a book that defies the usual genre niches, and for this and many other reasons I enjoyed it immensely. It will be available to the public March 14, 2017.

The premise is that Meredith Oliver, a middle school student, is present when the local deli is robbed. She and her frenemy, Lisa Bellow, are ordered to get down on the floor. When it’s all over, Lisa has been kidnapped, but Meredith is still there, traumatized but otherwise unharmed.

There are two key components that make this story a strong one. The first is characterization. Both Meredith and her mother, Claire, are so carefully rendered that by the end of the book I felt as if I could predict what either of them would say in any given situation. The second is plot, and here Perabo’s expertise in her field—she is a professor of English as well as a novelist—shines through. She gives us just enough information to keep us taut and engaged, skillfully meting out a taste here, an additional nugget there, while leaving us with some of our original questions and posing new ones.

You see, Meredith is here, but she isn’t; at least not all of the time. She suffers from survivor’s remorse, to be certain, but a completely second life, one in which she and Lisa are together, is woven into the narrative, and it leaves us wondering whether Lisa’s abduction has perhaps been arranged by Claire or even by Meredith, or horror of horrors, the two of them as confederates.

Another compelling aspect of this novel is the family. Prior to the accident, Meredith and Claire constitute half of a cozy middle class family. Both parents are dentists, her father the kind of upbeat but slightly clueless guy that operates in the day-to-day, gliding happily along life’s surface. He’s not a deep thinker. Meredith’s older brother Evan, who she adores, is an athlete with a future, a baseball player being courted by any number of colleges, until the accident occurs in which one eye is lost. The doctor that attends him tells the family bluntly, “Imagine stepping on an ice cream cone.”

As Meredith winks in and out of the world around her, the family also is strained almost to the breaking point.

Meredith’s voice is so richly crafted that it will take the reader back to middle school. The wrenching emotions, the jockeying for social position, the depth of devotion and the dark, searing hate are so powerful that as I look back on my years as an eighth grade teacher, I am amazed that any of my students was able to learn anything. The social subtext is impossible to ignore, and it sends little flags out constantly in small ways; shifted body language, the choice as to whether to speak to someone in the halls, choosing who to befriend not only based on the friend’s qualities but on what it will mean about one’s other school relationships—all these things constitute a full time job. Meredith loves algebra, and I thank the author for crushing the stereotype that says girls don’t do that. Yet the rest of Meredith’s classes tend to pass in a fog that is dominated by the social interaction that’s anticipated both in the next class and in the hallway during passing time. The locker room is a nightmare waiting to happen, a Lord of the Flies with meaningful glances and flipped hair taking the place of spears and fire.

I won’t give away the end of this story because it would completely ruin it for you, but at the same time, I found myself both relieved and oddly let down by the denouement.

Recommended to those that love strong fiction.