The Spies of Shilling Lane, by Jennifer Ryan

After the heavy reading I’ve been doing lately, I needed something a bit lighter. A book set in London during the Blitz centered on a mother looking for her lost daughter, such as Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane, doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice. But from the first chapter, I knew I was going to be entertained. Mrs. Braithwaite, the primary protagonist of the novel, is the epitome of the British battle axe. She is so bombastic and domineering that she has just been kicked out of the Women’s Volunteer Service in her village. Her spirit isn’t always a detriment. It turns into an asset when she discovers that her daughter, Betty, has gone missing and no one else is willing or able to do anything about it. Mrs. Braithwaite doesn’t hesitate before she goes looking and badgering others into helping.

The cover of The Spies of Shilling Lane, like the book description, is also a bit of a red herring. Both lead us to think that this book is going to be more harrowing and serious than it actually is. From where I sat, however, The Spies of Shilling Lane turned into an audacious farce as Mrs. Braithwaite, the increasingly less hapless Mr. Norris, and the enterprising Betty end up chasing each other and various ne’er-do-wells around London. They rescue, lose, re-rescue each other more than once and end up becoming heroes in the process.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot because, for one thing, there’s too much to re-cap and, for another, it would ruin the fun of all the twists and turns—and the possibly unintentional comedy of the plot. Instead, I’ll say that I really enjoyed being inside the head of a battle axe…a lot more than I thought I would. I know that Mrs. Braithwaite would drive me insane if I ever encountered her in real life. In fiction, though, I loved the way that she made room for herself in any room she found herself in. It also helps that Mrs. Braithwaite learns to unclench over the course of the novel. At the beginning of The Spies of Shilling Lane, Mrs. Braithwaite writes that success in life is all about social standing and the perception of others. She returns to the question periodically, giving a different (and more humane) answer each time. It’s strange how mortal danger can turn out to be just the thing one needs to reexamine one’s priorities.

As I read The Spies of Shilling Lane, I wished that someone would buy the rights to the novel and turn it into a mini-series or a movie. This book is highly cinematic and full of potential for humor. (I’m still not sure if it’s intended to be that way. I don’t really care.) I suspect that other readers might find it too unrealistic or ludicrous, but I was massively entertained by this book. Other readers might also enjoy this book, too, if they don’t take it too seriously and just let themselves getting swept up in Mrs. Braithwaite’s wake. You just know that things will end up all right if she’s in charge. You will end up with a few bruises, of course, but you’ll more or less survive the experience.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

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