When Providence provides, what can Jane do but investigate?

Jane and the Waterloo Map

Being the thirteenth of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries. Jane, as the newly revealed author of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, is summoned to Carlton House. Not, as you might expect, to meet its tenant, the Prince Regent, who is occupied by sitting for his Waterloo portrait, but to view the prince’s magnificent library and to avail herself of its amenities as a room in which to write her next book. Jane does not approve of the regent and after she fulfills her duty to this royal command is going to do no such thing, until a Hero (Jane and Barron make that a proper noun in the stile [sic] of the day and I follow suit) of the battle of Waterloo falls at her feet, in death throes from poisoning by yew needles. When Providence provides, what can Jane do but investigate?

From the body in the library [squee!] to the cameo appearance by the Duke of Wellington and the reappearance of that dashing painter slash spy, Raphael West (whom we first met in Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas) Jane ignores, avoids and denies the constrictions and shibboleths accruing to her sex in this time and place to seek out the villain and bring him to justice. There are false starts and red herrings, her brother Henry’s annoyance at his sister’s predilection for these unladylike exploits and her own attraction to West to navigate, but never doubt that Jane will get there in the end.

In her literary persona Jane is currently editing Emma, or she is when her new publisher finally gets the proofs to her.

“Suprizes are foolish things,” I intoned in Mr. Knightley’s voice. “The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.” I have a decided talent for an epigram; I hope it delights my readers as much as myself.

It does, Jane, it does, and Barron knows this full well and shamelessly and delightfully exploits Jane’s own real world words to enhance Barron’s narrative. There are echoes, too, from Jane’s novels in this one that are so poignant as to be a little painful.

I should have spoken. I should have said, loudly or softly, You know that you may command me in anything, Raphael West.

Jane Bennet, anyone, who nearly lost Bingley because Darcy thought her indifferent? And see Jane’s thoughts on Anne Elliott, the heroine of her next novel, Persuasion.

I shall spend my hours in consideration of a young woman long since On the Shelf, the daughter of a foolish by privileged family, whose good sense in chusing a man of action and prowess is rewarded as such wisdom usually is: by being dissuaded from risk, and channeled with the best possible motives into an oppressive and stultifying spinsterhood.

Ouch. Jane’s voice is so clear and so real and often so acerbic in these novels that you feel as if you are residing behind and just to the left of her occipital lobe throughout. I could move in for good.

And great news for Barron and Austen fans, Stephanie Barron is signing Jane and the Waterloo Map at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale at 7pm tomorrow! Click here to order your signed copy.

He was the first white naturalist ever to observe and sample the flora and fauna and Native life of Alaska.

Where the Sea Breaks Its Back: The Epic Story - Georg Steller & the Russian Exploration of AKWhere the Sea Breaks Its Back: The Epic Story – Georg Steller & the Russian Exploration of AK by Corey Ford

The Steller’s jay, common to the western American coast from southcentral Alaska to Central America, is a relation of the eastern blue jay, common to central and east coastal America. The Steller’s jay is gorgeous, a graduated blue with an aggressive crest that stands straight up and makes it look like Mr. T in a really bad mood. I’ve grown up around the Steller’s jay, they’re the default blue jay for me, and so it was with a delightful shock of recognition that I read this passage in Corey Ford’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back

He sent Lepekhin to shoot some of the strange and unknown birds he had noticed…He “placed in my hands a single specimen, of which I remember have seen a likeness painted in lively colors and described in the newest account of the birds of the Carolinas.” Steller’s fantastic memory had recalled a hand-colored plate of the eastern American bluejay in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, etc., which he had seen years before in the library of the St. Petersburg Academy; and he identified Lepekhin’s find as its west coast cousin, known today as Cyanocitta stelleri, or Steller’s Jay. Now his last doubts about the land they had discovered were resolved. “This bird proved to me that we were really in America.”

steller's jay

The words are Georg Steller’s, a German naturalist in the employ of Russia. It was July 20, 1741, and after six weeks of wandering all over what today is known as the Gulf of Alaska with no maps, too few provisions, a to put it politely fractious multinational crew, having lost sight of the second ship in their expedition, Steller stepped ashore on what is today known as Kayak Island in what today is known as Prince William Sound. He was the first white naturalist ever to observe and sample the flora and fauna and Native life of Alaska.

He was a capable scientist and a terrific writer. He was also a difficult personality frustrated by what he perceived to be the idiots he sailed with.

“Just at the time when it was most necessary to apply reason in order to attain the wished-for object,” he wrote in his journal, “the erratic behavior of the naval officers began. They commenced to ridicule sneeringly and to leave unheeded every opinion offered by anybody not a seaman, as if, with the rules of navigation, and they had also acquired all the other science and logic. And at a time when a single day–so many of which were afterwards spent in vain–might have been decisive for the whole enterprise, the course was suddenly changed to north.”

He was generally right about the crew, especially the execrable sailing master Khitrov, who knew everything about sailing except how to navigate. It didn’t make Steller any more beloved on board. He wanted to winter in Alaska but the captain, the Dane Vitus Bering, decides to make for Kamchatka instead. The Mother of Storms loses her temper with them and it amazes me how well the St. Peter stands up under all the horrific storms she throws at them, but eventually they wreck on what is today known as Bering Island and spend the winter there. To which wreck we owe our knowledge of Steller’s sea cow, a northern relative of the manatee which went extinct shortly thereafter.

The following spring, after the death of fully a third of the crew from scurvy and exposure, including Bering, after a winter of being literally nibbled to death by the blue foxes that overran the Aleutians at that time, they cannibalize the wreck of the St. Peter into a longboat and set off again for home, reaching it in less than six weeks. All of Steller’s carefully preserved specimens had to be left behind.

In such fraught circumstances is born an astonishingly thorough and thoughtful examination of this new land. Steller is the first to describe the life cycles and to name the five species of Pacific salmon. He is the first white man to discover the salmonberry. He is the only naturalist ever to have observed the Steller’s sea monkey. Alas, while they’ve been gone there has been a regime change in St. Petersburg and the old spirit of exploration is gone. Steller’s report is filed and forgotten in the archives of the Russian Academy of Science, where it can still be seen today, and he himself died in penury and ignominy.

This book was first published in 1966 but there is nothing dry or dated about either the subject matter or style. This is a riveting, rip-snorting survival tale along the lines of Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. The last chapter, in which Ford describes what happened after the Bering expedition brought back news of the abundance of sea otters and fur seals in Alaska, stimulating a horde of promyshlenniki and the subsequent slaughter of Alaskan wildlife and rape of Alaska Natives is a cautionary tale that carries a grim warning into the present day. Highly, highly recommended.

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Boorman puts him in a flight simulator and throws an exploding cargo door at him on takeoff.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things RightThe Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

“For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance,” writes Dr. Gawande.

But sometime over the last several decades–and it is only over the last several decades–science has filled in enough knowledge to make ineptitude as much our struggle as ignorance.

In particular, the practice of medicine and especially surgery has improved beyond all imagination, but the discovery and accumulation–and dissemination–of so much research has overwhelmed O.R. teams to the point that too many patients die from what Gawande calls “the stupid stuff,” like the giving of antibiotics prior to surgery. This should be automatic and most of the time it is, but O.R. are not calm, quiet places and neither are the hospitals they are in. Emergencies are commonplace, doctors and nurses get distracted, and mistakes happen.

So Gawande looks at how other professions prevent mistakes, including high rise construction, aviation, and even mutual fund managers. It turns out they all use…checklists.

On an initial test flight in 1935, the B-17, aka the Flying Fortress, crashed and killed two of its five crew.

The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.” The army air corps declared Douglas’s small design the winner. Boeing nearly went bankrupt.

So a group of pilots get together and what do they do? They create a checklist. Anyone who’s ever been on a plane has seen the pilots holding those plastic covered lists and if you’re sitting far enough forward you can hear them running them down. The pilot’s checklist has been instrumental in saving literally thousands of lives in airplane accidents, like United 811 when the cargo door blew off en route from Honolulu to New Zealand in 1989 and including US Airways 1549, aka The Miracle on the Hudson

The pilots’ preparations had made them a team. Sullenberger would look for the nearest, safest possible landing sit. Skiles would go to the engine failure checklists to see if he could relight the engines…In the end, Skiles managed to complete a restart attempt on both engines, something investigators later testified to be “very remarkable” in the time frame he had–and something they found difficult to replicate in simulation.

In conjunction with WHO, Gawande decides to make a checklist for ORs. It is an abysmal failure, too long, too complicated, during the test drive in his own O.R. everyone including the patient hates it.

By the end of the day, we had stopped using the checklist. Forget making this work around the world. It wasn’t even working in one operating room.

So he goes to Boeing, The Checklist Factory (the chapter title), and consults Dan Boorman, the guy in charge of developing checklists for Boeing aircraft. Boorman puts him in a flight simulator (I love this part, Gawande isn’t a pilot and it doesn’t sound like he has ever even flown in anything smaller than a 737) and throws an exploding cargo door at him on takeoff. By following the checklist, Gawande manages to abort the takeoff and land safely. (I’d bet anything he’s in flight school right now.)

Boorman instructs him on what makes a successful checklist. It has to be short. There have to be “pause points.” It should use both uppercase and lowercase text for ease of reading. And most importantly, it has to be tested.

So Gawande goes home and rewrites and rewrites and rewrites his OR checklist. And then he assembles an OR team in his conference room, puts a volunteer “patient” on the conference table, and tests it and tests it and tests it and then tests it some more. When it’s ready, he assembles eight hospitals from Tanzania to London to test it in their O.R.’s. And then he goes home and awaits results.

The final results showed that the rate of major complications for surgical patients in all eight hospitals fell by 36 percent after introduction of the checklist. Deaths fell 47 percent…Using the checklist had spared more than 150 people form harm–and 27 of them from death.

“Some skepticism persisted,” Gawande writes.

After all, 20 percent did not find [the checklist] easy to use, thought it took too long, and felt it had not improved the safety of care.

Then we asked the staff one more question. “If you were having an operation,” we asked, “would you want the checklist to be used?”

A full 93 percent said yes.

His checklist is now being adopted in O.R.s around the nation and around the world, albeit slowly and in some cases because surgeons have long been the gods of their O.R.s and are slow to give up power. You can blame ego for a lot wrong with the world. Highly recommended.

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Kamala Khan, a normal sixteen-year old teenage girl in Jersey City who happens to be Muslim and, you know, a superhero.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 3: CrushedMs. Marvel, Vol. 3: Crushed by G. Willow Wilson

An excellent series about Kamala Khan, a normal sixteen-year old teenage girl in Jersey City who happens to be Muslim and, you know, a superhero, and in fact an Inhuman, like Skye/Daisy on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The first book begins with her latent superpowers being activated by the Terrigen Cloud or Mist or whatever it is and her learning what those powers are and how to use them.

She also has to figure out a costume and what to do with it when she’s not wearing it, and how to handle her loving but conservative parents, her mystified but supportive brother, and her equally mystified friends and high school faculty. Her best friend Bruno is the only one who knows her secret identity, and there are lines like “Dude. You’re from a galaxy far, far away.”

There are Marvel character cameos, including Wolverine (Ms. Marvel snaps a selfie with him, natch) and Loki, who seems to have suffered either a character change or his mom is watching (I can’t keep up with the whole Marvel universe, and really, how could anyone?), and Coulson and Simmons and Captain America and some redhead who appears to be in charge of the Inhumans. Kamala battles giant robots and giant alligators and has a giant teleporting dog, so it’s good her superpower can embiggen her into a giant, too, or just makes her a giant foot or a giant fist when she needs one.

The series is a cross cultural story of epic proportions, it’s a coming of age story, and it’s a story about those essential life lessons in finding help and support in places you never expected. Her imam, Sheikh Abdullah, is a wonderfully written character. Her parents send Kamala to him so he can straighten her out back into that perfect daughter they named her for. She tells him

Nothing’s wrong with me. It’s not like that…It’s–I don’t want to lie, but I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me. I–I help people.

And when she says she’s not very good at it (and she isn’t, yet), he says

Well, if you’re not very good at it…perhaps you need a teacher…do what you are doing with as much honor and skill as you can.

She’s expecting a verbal beat down and the religious boom lowered and instead she finds a sensible friend.

Ms. Marvel is also a window on what teenagers are thinking these days, which makes it a revelatory read for adults as well. The second novel especially was a real eye opener for me. The messaging can be a little on the nose, but the rush of the plot sweeps all before it, and the next thing you know her archnemesises, the Inventor, who, yes, immediately reminded me of all three members of the Trio, is back in the game, and look out, it’s hammering time.

Here is your perfect gift for that teenager or Marvel nerd (forget it, they’ve already got it) or, heck, anyone who enjoys a good adventure story.

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Either it’s murder or a really pissed off music critic.

Murder and Mendelssohn (Phryne Fisher #20)Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood

Greenwood’s twentieth Phryne Fisher novel, and I think her best yet. DI Jack Robinson brings Phryne the case file of a conductor who has, apparently, been suffocated by someone stuffing most of the score of a Mendelssohn oratorio down his throat. Either it’s murder or a really pissed off music critic.

But this book isn’t only or even mostly about the murder. Doctor John Wilson, whom Phryne knew from her days as an ambulance driver in WWI, is in town, and in unrequited love with his employer, mathematician Rupert Sheffield. The stumbling, bumbling love affair between these two men is really touching, and Phryne’s dea ex machina efforts to speed them on their rose-colored way are, shall we say, innovative and at times hilarious, and always poignant. In 1928, the love that dare not speak its name was socially abhorrent, not to mention illegal. Given current events, it’s a powerful reminder of how far we’ve come.

And in the background, the guns of World War I are always thundering. We get more of Phryne’s frontline experiences (I started to say adventures but that’s way too romantic a noun to describe what happened to her and John there). Phryne and John are survivors of that conflict that killed most of a generation of young men, but they didn’t come out of it unscathed. Phryne also has cause to dip into her MI5 past (she got around), with fun results.

All of Phryne’s ménage is present and accounted for (I’m really liking the way Tinker is developing, and I want to steal Mr. and Mrs. Butler), and the author notes at the end (on gay recognition signs, WWI argot, and especially Compton MacKenzie–what was the TV show????) are worth reading all by themselves. As a writer I especially appreciate this

…I can’t write psychopaths. I have to get inside a character to put them in a novel and I have enough nightmares as it is.


After I read this book I went back and reread Cocaine Blues, the first in the series, and then I reread my favorite, Blood and Circuses, where Phryne runs away from her safe, luxurious life to the circus. It’s a case, of course it is, but not only does Phryne learn how to ride a horse standing up she learns she can triumph against the bad guys on her own. And there is a love story ended abruptly by murder that breaks her heart, and will break yours, too.

In fact the whole series holds up well. You want a binge read? Here you go.

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The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl.

The Beauty of Humanity MovementThe Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Very well written look at modern Vietnamese history told through the life of one man in Hanoi, introduced in the first line

Old Man Hu’ng makes the best phở in the city and has done so for decades.

He did from the shop left to him by his uncle when the French were in power, continued to do so after Uncle Ho and the communists forced him into the streets to sell from a push cart, did through the US bombings of December 1972, and still does today, when a young Vietnamese American woman named Maggie comes in search of news of her father. He was a member of an artists and writers’ group, the Beauty of Humanity Movement, that met in Old Man Hu’ng’s phở shop in the 1950s. The group was disbanded by Uncle Ho’s communist party and either murdered or sent away to re-education camps, some never to be heard of again.

There is a lot going on here, just for starters history from the Vietnamese side, a side we here in America seldom see

The war was a long time ago, well before Tu was born, and besides, in his opinion, an opinion shared with most of his friends, everything great was invented in the United States. Blue jeans, for example. And Nikes and Tommy Hilfiger. And MTV and Nintendo and the Internet. And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans; they don’t go around boasting about it, but it’s true. It wasn’t like the Chinese, crushing the Vietnamese for a thousand years, or the French, who tortured and killed for decades, making the Vietnamese slaves in their own country and taking every decision out of their hands.

There is an exercise in perspective for you. A war that consumed my entire generation and still echoes in politics today is barely a blip on Vietnam’s historical radar.

There is low key humor, productive of smiles if not guffaws

He taps his temple with his pen, commending himself for his memorization skills. A communist education has its benefits.

and there is continual, clear-eyed observation of the vast, sometimes seemingly insuperable cultural differences between East and West

Tu’s father is once again being a gentleman, laying his Windbreaker down on the ground for Maggie. Oh, thank you. Are you sure? That’s so kind of you. What about you?–too much fuss and too many thank-yous, just like a typical American.

Even if you didn’t like the story you’d finish the book with a burning (see what I did there) desire to learn to make phở yourself

The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that phở was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from plows and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hu’ng’s uncle Chien explained to him long ago.

The ending is a little too good to be true, but as Old Man Hu’ng says himself

Hu’ng has his moments of wondering whether this is the afterlife or the present life. But then he asks himself, Does it matter?

And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe after all the shit they’ve been through, after all the time they’ve spent crushed beneath some Chinese or French or US or their own Communist boot, they deserve a shot at a happy ending. At least Gibb thinks so, and I’m okay with that, too. Recommended.

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Those boys in that boat? Are the collective definition of the American dream.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

One of the best books I’ve read this year.

I could care less about sport and less than that about crewing, but this book made me care in a way I never have before, because it isn’t about the sport, it’s about the boys in the boat, and about where they come from, and about the physical, mental, emotional and above all spiritual cost of the Depression, and about the rise of Hitler, and about the class war between USA East and USA West, and about working hard for something you want and then working harder and again harder for it.

But mostly, it’s about the boys in the boat, especially Joe Rantz, who is abandoned by his father not once but twice and has to figure out how to feed himself during the absolute financial nadir of this nation, and how to endure the slights and sneers of his classmates when he manages to get into UW and they make fun of him for his appearance and his appetite. He was hungry, for crissake.

It’s no spoiler to say they go on to triumph (it says so on the cover), but that doesn’t make this book any less of an edge of the seat account of how they do so. Their “swing” is always falling apart, and you’ll feel every one of the two thousand meters during the final sprint for the gold medal. Everything is against them, the illness of their stroke oar, Don Hume, the official who dropped the start flag where the Americans and the British couldn’t see it, the assignment of them both to the worst lanes, even the wind was against them. The guts and the sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness of those boys in pulling to an impossible gold medal inspires awe and not a little bit of shame. When was the last time I worked that hard for anything? Or ever?

The epilogue made me tear up, but it shouldn’t have, because these boys went on to live lives that are the very definition of well-lived, and they all stayed close friends until their deaths. Those boys in that boat? Are the collective definition of the American dream.

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