The Janus Stone: Spoiler Alert!

This book is every bit as good as The Crossing Places. No, it’s actually better. So much funnier! Though the parts told from the murderer’s point of view (thankfully, brief) are gut-churning. Do not read any further if you do not want to know the identity of the murderer! The dialogue is A++.

Ruth screams, so loudly that it startles both of them. Roderick stops and looks at her quizzically.

“Why are you frightened?” he asks.

“What do you think?” shouts Ruth. “I’m stuck here on a boat with a madman. A madman with a knife.”

Roderick looks quite hurt. “I’m not mad,” he says. “I’ve got a first in classics from Cambridge.”

From what Ruth has seen of Oxbridge graduates, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Janus Stone, p. 287

This conversation follows immediately after a scene where we see DCI Harry Nelson running around like a chicken without a head. Eventually, he figures out (through the timely appearance of Cathbad) that he’s been worried about the wrong daughter. Self wanted to pull her hair out.

Stay tuned.

Reconaissance, the Green River, Georgia

A few weeks — or was it months — ago, self waxed lyrical over James D. Hornfischer’s ability to evoke landscape (completely redundant in a book about battles, some might think). Well, here she is at a major engagement of the American Revolutionary War (How does self know it’s a major engagement of the American Revolutionary War? Because it’s taken chapters and chapters to get to this point, ARRRGH!) Patrick K. O’Donnell matches Hornfischer in his description of the Green River in Georgia.

It is just before dawn on January 17, 1781. Sergeant Lawrence Everhart and twelve men have “trotted down the Green River Road into the predawn darkness on a special reconaissance operation, three miles beyond American outposts . . . For more than a mile, the cavalrymen rode silently through frostbitten trees dotting barren fields, when suddenly they collided head-on with” the British army.

Everhart and his men “wheeled their horses and bolted in the opposite direction, with the British advance in hot pursuit.” The British rode the “fleetest race horses which (they) had impressed from their owners . . . and which enabled them to take Sergeant Everhard and one of his men . . . After shooting Everhart’s horse out from under him . . . a Loyalist quartermaster took him prisoner and brought him before” the British commander.

“Do you expect Mr. Washington will fight this day?” asked the officer.

Everhart: “Yes, if they can keep together only two hundred men.”

Washington’s Immortals, p. 285

Fighting words! The British had over 1000 men.

The British attacked, advancing over a frozen field. “Two three-pound grasshoppers fired into the American line. The British infantry broke into a jog, crossing nearly the length of two football fields in three minutes.”

Postscript: As the British were forced to leave the field, they shot their prisoners, one of whom was Everhart. They shot him “in the head at point-blank range . . . Remarkably, the Marylander survived the traumatic wound and remained lucid enough to talk to Washington . . . ” Washington asked “Everhart who had attempted to execute him. Everhart pointed to the man who shot him . . . and just Retaliation was exercised.” The Redcoat was “instantly shot.”

Savage! Washington did not want a single Redcoat to escape. He set out furiously after them. “Despite their casualties, the American foot soldiers set out immediately on a forced march, a feat they repeated several times in the coming months.”

Stay tuned.

Poetry Sunday: Miguel Hernandez’s A Man-Eating Knife

A few days ago, self went to downtown Palo Alto, to Landmark Aquarius on Emerson, to watch Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers. Penelope Cruz is excellent as always. A gamine young actress named Milena Smit is a real scene-stealer.

In honor of the film’s subject, she’s quoting from Miguel Hernandez’s A Man-Eating Knife (in a translation by Don Share)

Where can I be
that I will not find loss?
Your destiny is the beach,
my calling is the sea.

Miguel Hernandez died in a Spanish prison at the age of thirty-one. Below, an excerpt from Octavio Paz’s Remember That Voice, written in memory of Hernandez from Mexico City, November 1942. The translation is by Eliot Weinberger.

Miguel Hernandez has died in prison in the village where he was born. He has died alone in a hostile Spain, the enemy of a Spain where he spent his youth, the antagonist of a Spain that rang out with his generosity. Let others curse his torturers, let others study and analyze his poetry. I want to remember him as he was.

I first saw him in 1937, singing Spanish folk songs. He had a deep voice, somewhat ragged, somewhat like an innocent animal: he sounded like the countryside, like a low echo in the valleys, like a stone falling into a ravine.

New Book

Finished reading The Man Who Died Twice. That novel was such a beauty. It was full of warmth and relationships and affection and dashed hopes and plot twists and surprises and, most of all, characters that stay with you. The Thursday Murder Club rules! FIVE STARS.

She had some trouble deciding what to read next, but finally settled on:

She loved James D. Hornfischer’s The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, about the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She adores the author’s writing style. He is peerless in describing sea battles.

Ship of Ghosts is not truly about a battle but about the men who survived the sinking of their ship. Nevertheless, the opening sets the scene in just a few paragraphs: Surabaya, the Flores Sea, Java. A fifty-year-old Admiral. Throttlemen and water tenders and machinists. It is already very exciting.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

The Expanse, S6: It Begins

The Expanse — book and series — sustained self all through last year.

The first episode of the final season — Season 6 — just dropped on Amazon Prime.

And oh, what a beauty. What self loves so much about the series is that the quiet scenes are given as much weight as the action scenes. And, goes without saying, the gorgeousness of Chrisjen, Holden, Naomi, Amos, Drummer, Frankie, Marco, Filip and ‘Peaches’!

The US Carrier St. Lo: “A Red Streak”

Tom Van Brunt from the carrier St. Lo was “circling the carrier at a distance, watching other planes land, when a red streak flew past his greenhouse canopy. The startling appearance of a Japanese insignia painted on a wide white wing was Van Brunt’s first indication that enemy aircraft were near. He almost collided with the Japanese plane as it descended toward the St. Lo.

Shortly before eleven a.m. Taffy 3 came under wholesale kamikaze attack. The Japanese Army Air Corps had debuted this horrific new mode of warfare earlier that morning, when six imperial planes took off from bases on Davao and attacked Thomas Sprague’s Taffy 1 task unit. (There are two Spragues in this theater of war: very confusing! Ziggy Sprague is the commander of Taffy 3; Thomas Sprague is the commander of Taffy 1, which was providing cover for MacArthur’s landing. And these two are NOT RELATED) One struck the escort carrier Santee, starting a huge blaze that raged in the hangar deck for about ten minutes. Only the expert marksmanship of gunners aboard the Suwannee, the Sangamon, and the Petrof Bay let them avoid similar hits.

At 10:50 five more aircraft flying from airdromes on Luzon arrived over Taffy 3 and plummeted like osprey . . .

A Zero, a bomb under each wing, rose up, nosed over, and plunged into the flight deck. One or both bombs went off” just as eight planes were being reloaded. Piled around them was “enough weaponry to blow a small town out of existence: eight torpedoes, six depth charges, fifteen 500-lb. bombs, forty 100-pounders, and some 1,400 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 351

It took only one Japanese plane, but the aim of that pilot was true: straight into the bridge. And the St. Lo went down.

That reminds self of another set of planes . . .

Once again, stellar stellar writing from James D. Hornfischer. There is no reason he needed to summon imagery for the red streaks. Nevertheless, “plummeted like osprey” is a hell of a metaphor, just sayin’

And the list of ammunition, instead of just saying: the whole hangar went up in flames.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

9:07 a.m., the Gambier Bay

9:07 a.m. — The Gambier Bay, the first American carrier ever to fall to the guns of a hostile force (in nearly three years of fighting, which is really saying something), sank. The call to abandon ship had been issued twenty minutes before.

We now see the sinking from the point of view of Captain Vieweg, “among the last to leave the ship.” Again, the total mastery (and stellar writing)! Hats off to you, James D. Hornfischer!

  • Vieweg felt his way aft, looking for the ladder down to the starboard catwalk. In the smoke and steam he missed the ladder altogether and plummeted into a void. The smoke was so black and the heat so intense that the captain, thoroughly disoriented, feared he had fallen right into the main exhaust stack. On a CVE its yawning black chasm was nearly flush with the flight deck. Panicked, Vieweg grabbed the rim of the steel enclosure he lay in and hauled himself out of it. Then he was falling again. He broke into clear air, fell about forty feet into the water, and was nearly choked by the strap on his battle helmet when he plunged in. He surfaced to find the carrier’s ten-thousand-ton bulk rolling to starboard, threatening to come down on top of him. He swam madly toward the stern and cleared the ship by the time it finally turned turtle, exhaled the last of the stale air from its compartments, and entered the formidable depths of the Philippine Sea.

And that, dear blog readers, is how you write about a man abandoning ship.

That is all.

Checking In with the USS Johnston

This destroyer is sure to be sunk, because its skipper had his crew get as close as possible to the enemy line so that they could get their torpedoes within firing range. Once the destroyer’s entire rack of 10 torpedoes had been emptied, they still had to thread a line of Japanese battleships and hope to make their escape.

The next few chapters followed the pilots who had catapulted from the widely zigzagging US carriers (some unfortunately with empty bomb bays because there had not been time to load them). At the end of the last chapter, one of these pilots dips through a hole in the cloud cover and sees an American destroyer being chased down by a line of enemy battleships. The destroyer is crippled and limping. The pilot didn’t know it, but this was the USS Johnston, whose crew we had just met a few chapters ago, after they had accomplished their daring mission

Chapter Twenty-Three brings us back to the Johnston, describing what is happening on the ship. In one word: carnage. Half the people we met in earlier chapters are dead. The skipper tells his gun crew they will have to sight “manually.” Uh. Since one of the crew was still sitting in his gun mount, but without a head, this was a very terrifying prospect. Nevertheless, it was done.

Back in the mount, Hollenbaugh stood on the gun captain’s platform, head poking up from the turret, shouting bearings to Bobby Chastain to guide his rotation of the gun, and ranges to Samuel Moody to determine how high to elevate it . . . Chastain and Moody turned and elevated their gun by turning brass-handled wheels on either side of the mount. They cranked them furiously back and forth as the ship veered and the guns barked and Hollenbaugh relayed ranges.

The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors, p. 209

Then a squall arises and Evans, the skipper (who btw was Cherokee, and at 41 the oldest man on the ship), tries to steer his damaged ship to follow the squall, “but the squall appeared to be moving faster than the ship was.” And there the chapter ends.

This is all tremendously exciting (and gut-churning) and readers owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to James D. Hornfischer for bringing such excellent writing skills to the description of this battle. You know, self grew up in the Philippines, lived in it for the first 21 years of her life, and had never heard of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. What a crying shame. Next time she’s home, she’ll make for Samar to see if there is a memorial there.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

After Sounding the Alarm

Ensign Bill Brooks lined up his Avenger behind the tail of the column of Japanese battleships and released four depth bombs (which did little damage). He pushed his Avenger down to the water, and built speed for his exit, “just 50 feet above the wavetops.”

He knew he could no longer return to his carrier because, after he gave the alarm, it likely would “be fleeing under fire, probably to the south, zigzagging to dodge shells, out of the wind.” He headed for the open ocean.

Oh my bacon, this is such a good book. Even with such a vast cast of characters, James D. Hornfischer still manages to make the reader care about individuals involved in the drama.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Sentence of the Day, 1st Sunday of October 2021

George Holliday, who recorded the beating of Rodney King, died on September 19th, aged 61.

Lead sentence, The man on the balcony,The Economist Obituary, 2 October 2021:

  • For near on nine minutes, George Holliday stood outside his second-floor windows with his three-pound Sony Handycam clamped to his eye.

It is quite an amazing article.

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