Curtsies & Conspiracies: Finishing School: Book the Second by Gail Carriger; Little, Brown, 310 pages $18 Ages 12 and up.
This hugely entertaining steampunk novel, of a spy school for young ladies in a dirigible floating over England, has everything: humor, suspense, romance, intrigue, the cliques one would expect at a finishing school, conspiracies involving humans and supernaturals (werewolves, vampires), even a fancy dress ball. Sophronia is one of the most resourceful and amusing heroines to come along in a while, as she sneaks around the dirigible, spying on professors and hanging out with the Sooties in the boiler room where she has a special friendship with a lad named Soap. Her classmates ostracize her after she gets the highest score on an exam (which among other things involves ferreting out which tea cakes are laced with cyanide). Sophronia is pretty much on her own trying to sniff out a high-level conspiracy endangering her friends, with clues that might involve messages in the stitching on a hidden cache of embroidery pillows. Even those who have not read the first book, “Etiquette & Espionage,” will enjoy the distinctive voice of this gloriously original entertainment.
– Jean Westmoore
Longbourn by Jo Baker; Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages ($25.95)
Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” is a fully imagined rejoinder to “Pride and Prejudice” that casts a sharp working-class eye on the aristocratic antics of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy and their friends.
The Bennets’ housemaid Sarah is Baker’s heroine, and she seems far more heroic than the pampered family as we follow her through the never-ending rounds of backbreaking labor required to maintain a Georgian household. Muddy petticoats must be scrubbed clean with lye soap that leaves her hands cracked and bleeding; when inclement weather prevents young ladies from journeying to town for shoe-roses to ornament their dancing slippers, Sarah must trudge through the rain for them. “If they send you on a fool’s errand in foul weather again ... I’ll go instead,” says the new footman, James. A tender love story grows from their undeniable attraction, made more poignant because servants are at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
We observe the Bennet girls’ romances at a distance, though the reprehensible Wickham behaves as unscrupulously here with the help as he does in Austen’s original with Lydia. Baker is not entirely unsympathetic to the upper-class characters; Mrs. Bennet, in particular, gets gentler treatment than Austen gave her.
– Wendy Smith, Newsday
Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II by Wil S. Hylton; Riverhead, 288 pages ($27.95)
While the quest to find a particular B-24 bomber in the Pacific Ocean is the thread that holds Wil Hylton’s superb book together, “Vanished” is about something far more profound. At its core, Hylton’s book is a story of loss so deeply felt that it crosses generations, and so difficult to accept that it leads survivors to create new lives for their loved ones where even abandonment seems preferable to the truth.
Tommy Doyle was 15 months old when his dad, Jimmie Doyle, shipped off to war in 1944, joined the crew of a B-24 and died on a mission over Palau the Pacific. But as Tommy grew up in a small town in West Texas, he heard his uncles whisper that Jimmie survived the crash, came back from the war and lived in California with a new wife and two daughters.
Their story gnawed at him. But when his mother died, leaving Tommy an old trunk, he showed no inclination to see what was inside. Not so his wife, Nancy. She waited for two years until she could bear it no longer. She asked if she could open the trunk.
Sure, Tommy said, and inside, at the very bottom in a tattered shoebox, she found the letters, Jimmie’s thoughts and dreams, and his unmistakable love for his family. There was no way, Nancy decided, that Jimmie Doyle would have abandoned them.
She searched for answers, finding little. Then, years later, she read an article about a doctor in California named Pat Scannon who searched for missing airplanes. When they finally spoke by phone, Nancy mentioned Jimmie Doyle. Scannon knew exactly who he was, when his plane disappeared, even the tail number – 453 – on that lumbering, graceless B-24.
In graceful, detailed prose that plants the reader in the center of every scene, Hylton traces the quest for this particular bomber – Scannon’s repeated trips to Palau, the slow, methodical searching by divers, the weeks of tedium balanced by moments of exhilaration with each small discovery.
It’s a fascinating story of forensic investigation. But around that, he paints the stories of people – not just Scannon and the Doyles, but the other members of Jimmie Doyle’s crew and their survivors, and the researchers and archaeologists like Eric Emery who worked relentlessly to give the families the answers they needed, even decades years after the war.
– Michael E. Young, Dallas Morning News