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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hardcastle's Actress (Hardcastle Mysteries) by Graham Ison | LibraryThing

Enjoyable audiobook.  Hardcastle, a gruff, often rude, DDI (Divisional Detective Inspector) is sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murder of a young actress, Victoria Hart, the recently married wife of a Navy Commander. The investigation wanders from husband to theater director to others who might have resented the lovely actress.

WW I in full swing, Victoria Hart, the dead woman, known for her risque outfits and dancing, had tried to help recruitment by offering a kiss to any man willing to sign recruitment papers (otherwise known as a death warrant.) When two recruiting sergeants are also murdered the investigation takes a different shift, focusing instead on looking for someone who might have resented having a loved one recruited leading to his death in France.  The end result is something different, indeed.

Hardcastle is temperamental and often obnoxious sometimes getting results as much through bullying as intelligence with only occasional -- and surprising -- acts of kindness toward his inferiors in rank.

The author, Graham Ison was apparently a Scotland Yard detective for many years.  He has an entire series built around the effects of WW I on the general population and the police.  He’s written close to forty novels.  They contain authentic details of police procedure in the early twentieth century as well has a host of obsolete slang, e.g. “who would know these days the meaning of a ‘fourpenny cannon’?  But in Hardcastle’s day, it was a steak and kidney pie.  And a ‘Piccadilly window’ was a term describing a monocle. “  (From the author’s web page.)

I’ll have my work cut out to read (listen to) all of the Hardcastle series.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Widowmaker by Drew Martensen | LibraryThing

Riveting, but not for the faint-hearted.  The term “widowmaker” comes from the slang term given to battalions with casualty rates approaching 90 percent. The average was around 50 percent. Definitely not the Marine Corps of John Wayne. Mortensen’s squad has descended to a level of inhumanity that’s difficult to read.  He tries to maintain a level of sanity, but the pressure to become as evil as the rest is overwhelming. “Then, I begin thinking about what I am becoming in this wretched place. Something evil grabbed hold of me today. I feel my spirit of patriotism and belief in just causes slowly slipping away. I have moved a step closer to being a boonie rat in the Nam.”

Arriving in ‘Nam as a grunt Marine, one of the first tasks his platoon engages in is to burn a Vietnamese village. Having just lost three Marines to severe injuries from a makeshift IED (“  Mr. Frankenstein, a trip wire connected to a grenade stuck inside a spool of barbed wire.”) the  leader of the platoon orders his men to tie up three village women and then kicks them over a cliff to their deaths.  The new Marines are horrified and protest, only to be threatened with death themselves :

This ain’t the fuckin’ real world, asshole! Y’all better get your shit together before it’s too fuckin’ late. Now y’all know what payback is.” Dusty stares at me with icy blue eyes. He turns, lights a cigarette, and walks away with Tanner. I’m in shock and very confused. This unconscionable attack against defenseless women can’t be justified under any circumstances. I keep repeating to myself, Why? Cars and I walk silently back to our position along the dike. I am still stunned about what had happened when Killer, Calahan, and a fire-team leader from third squad named Corporal Stafford approach us. I’m thinking, now what? Stafford does the talking. “You guys better learn to keep your mouths shut or something bad might happen to you. What I mean is, when there is one of those crazy firefights, anything could happen.

“I’m really feeling the pressure to become one of the hardcore members of the platoon. Getting my first gook is one thing, but I am expected to move on to more insidious, evil acts. Becoming an animal in the eyes of others is the next step. Now, I will be evaluated on how well I rape or kill in cold blood. It seems I am constantly being pressed to walk the fine line between bravery and blackhearted insanity… This is the Vietnam War I had never envisioned. I had always believed that American fighting men were brave and honorable like John Wayne and Audie Murphy. This war, however, is nothing like the movies. I feel empty, betrayed, and alone in a world of chaos. Nothing makes sense any more.”

Mortensen’s life is saved only by being badly injured during an attack on an NVA stronghold, one that gave the battalion its nickname of “widowmaker” All of his friends but one were killed. His description of the scene is extraordinarily vivid and realistic and equally horrifying. The nightmare continued on the hospital ship where a soldier, reminiscent of the famous scene in Catch-22 where nurses come daily to switch bottles on the soldier in white, has lost all his appendages and screams constantly. “The Marine Corps is supposed to produce heroes—not freaks. Tears fall down his cheeks like a dreary autumn rain. Now he must come to grips with the reality of being a freak, a war leper destined to live in a country where beauty and strength are worshipped. He’s distant, remote, and totally alone. He probably would have been better off dead. As my mind clears, I become aware.”

 Another soldier, his arms and legs shot to pieces, his nose and ears missing and having been tortured by the NVA is lying in the hospital at Bethesda. “Later that afternoon his parents rush onto the unit to be with their dying son. I’m shocked they let them see him in such a hideous condition. From my bed at the end of the ward, I hear his mother let out a blood-curdling scream. She falls to the floor, unconscious. I am so upset I leave the ward and walk around the hospital in disgust. Mercifully, the Marine dies later in the day. He will always remind me of the real horror of war." Mortensen comes to truly appreciate the benefits of pain-killing drugs, a relief that comes back to haunt him when he is discharged back into civilian society and is labeled “baby-killer.”

Having suffered a “dear John” letter earlier, he was fortunate to meet his first wife, Jean, but that relationship became haunted by the specter of Vietnam, also. The final 20% of the book reminded me of “Chickenhawk,” and the problems of psychologically having to deal with the horror of what he experienced.

A disturbing book, and I fear for my son, having already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, may be yet again.  When are we humans ever going to stop this insanity.

And let’s not forget that those who tell us the highest honor is to die for one's country are those who didn't.

The author has a facebook page ( with pictures of himself at bootcamp and in Vietnam.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zoo Station by David Downing

David Downing has written a series of novels about an English journalist in Berlin during WW II.  In Zoo Station, the first of the series, John Russell, is in Danzig when he’s approached by a Soviet NKVD agent offering him a lot of money for a series of articles that portrayed Naziism in a positive light.  Russell is an Englishman, a former Communist, who fought in WW I, having married (now estranged) a German woman.  His son, Paul, born in Germany, is a member of the Hitler Youth.

Russell suspects the Russians might be laying the groundwork for a future non-aggression pact. Then the Nazis approve, having their own motivation.  Both sides want him to report whatever he might learn about the other side’s interests.  So Russell is walking a tight-rope as the Russians demand more (no surprise), but Russell uses that for his own ends.

Some reviewers have complained there is no action and that the book is just a litany of Nazi evils with too much journal-like writing.  I disagree.  What Downing has done is to present the horrifying atmosphere and story of a people gradually being subjugated (often quite willingly) by a group of thugs.  At what point are we willing to resist and what motives lead us to participate or push back.   There’s the story of the mother who discovers her retarded daughter has been pegged for euthanasia by the state as part of their ethnic-cleansing and the father who reports his Down-Syndrome children precisely because he wants the child to disappear.  The recurring theme is the failure of ordinary people to resist.

What makes this series (at least this first book that I’ve read in the series) interesting, as with Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books, is the sense of place, the paranoia and fear of living in a repressive regime, and the difficulties faced by relatively ordinary people during that time of crisis. I’m reading Traitor’s Gate by Michael Ridpath, which has similar themes.

I will be reading the other volumes.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hope to Die (Matthew Scudder Mysteries) by Lawrence Block | LibraryThing

Another classic Scudder novel.  As I’ve noted in other Block reviews, I’ve listened to Block read his own work and there’s a definite cadence to his writing, as unique as Robert Parker’s Spenser novels (but much less intrusive.) So now when I read any of Block’s work, it’s almost as if I’m hearing his voice in my head.  Pleasant but sometimes disconcerting.

Scudder investigates the killing, burglary and rape of the Hollanders.  He’s approached initially by Byrne Hollander’s niece who has suspicions that their daughter, Kristin, was somehow involved. Nothing seems to point in that direction but the discovery of the bodies of the two burglars, dead from an apparent murder/suicide seems a bit too coincidental for Scudder. Good investigation despite the rather thin motivation for the complicated killings.

Something I found a bit discomfiting was the italicized thoughts of the killer, outlining and discussing his actions. I may be wrong, but I don’t remember that kind of interposition in the other Scudder books I’ve read.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

False Conception by Stephen Greenleaf

There’s something about a really well-written mystery that makes it a real pleasure to read.  Such is the case with Stephen Greenleaf’s Tanner novels and False Conception is no exception.

Tanner is hired by his friend, Russell, an attorney, to investigate a surrogate.  Seems some very wealthy clients of his, the Colberts, scions of a wealthy fashion empire, who wish to remain completely anonymous, want to implant an embryo in Stuart Colbert’s former secretary (for $100,000).  At least that’s the story.  It gets complicated because Russell must write up a contract without knowing the the law will be regarding surrogate rights and those of the biological parents. Russell needs Tanner to check out the former secretary without her knowledge and especially without her finding out who the the parents are of the  child she will bear.  The parents want to make sure no one will ever find out how the conception was brought to fruition, not realizing they are being manipulated by Stuart’s father.

As is axiomatic in Greenleaf and Ross MacDonald, the investigation turns over piles of corruption, hatred, and incest and once the links are connected hidden motives pop to the fore.

The reader is treated to passages such as this, “Because it was his office, Stuart Colbert looked comfortable and self-possessed and bursting with something to say. From the heat in his eyes and the flush to his face, I guessed it wouldn’t be pleasant. He was wiry and small, with an aesthete’s high forehead, a lizard’s bulbous eyes, and a languid smirk that declared he was master of all he surveyed. He struck me as a cold fish—judgmental, sanctimonious, arrogant, didactic—and a trifle jejune underneath. All to be expected, I suppose, given that his only source of early nourishment had come from a silver spoon. “

Excellent.  Really hard to put this one down.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

And by the way...

Those who tell us the highest honor is to die for one's country are those who didn't.  They should be ashamed.  Go back and try harder.

And by the way, should I ever die in the middle of the party or event, don't let anyone say, "let's continue, it's what Eric would have wanted."  What I would want is for everyone to be miserable for at least a year so don't even think of having any more parties.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush

Dyer writes of his experience on the carrier with a mix of awe, a child-like worshipfulness, elitism, and sardonicism. A fan of flight and model airplanes since his childhood, here he is in his fifties, finally invited on a huge aircraft carrier, where he insists he has to have a cabin to himself only to discover it’s located virtually under the flight deck where the pounding of planes landing threatens to deprive him of all sleep. And then he complains about the food.  He constantly refers to the photographer who accompanied him as “the snapper,” but we get no sense at all of who the “snapper” is, nor his feelings about the adventure.

There’s not much to do “after work” on an aircraft carrier, at least in Dyer’s very limited perspective.  Days are long, fourteen hours is the usual, and the balance of awake time is often spent studying.  Alcohol and personal affection are prohibited, so, he would have us believe, one is left with little to do but indulge in dominos. “The reality is that a carrier is as crowded as a Bombay slum, with an aircraft factory—the hangar bay—in the middle. The hangar bay is the largest internal space on the boat. It’s absolutely enormous—and barely big enough for everything going on there.”

The title, “Another Great Day at Sea,” is from the Captain’s daily exhortation to the crew.  It was a constantly repeated refrain, although Dyer wonders what the Captain might have intoned had they been in the middle of a North Atlantic storm.

Unable, not permitted, to go anywhere on the ship on his own, ostensibly for his own safety’s sake, one wonders just how accurate a view Dyer got of this modern marvel with the capacity to rain down death and destruction almost anywhere on the planet.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the religiosity displayed by the officers who all enjoyed the certitude that comes from hyper-religious belief and super-patriotism. Probably a prerequisite for the job.

But at the same time, Dyer is a very good listener and he extracts some revealing personal stories from his interviews with crew members. Of course, these must never be taken as generalizations given that the George Bush carries more than 5,000 men, that’s twice the size of my closest town.  Still, I very much enjoyed the book since I’m just as besotted by technology as is Dyer.

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Saturday, August 02, 2014

Mine's Bigger by David Kaplan

Tom Perkins,  member of the notorious HP board during the now infamous board battles (see,  was no land-lubber.   He could name all of the lines on a clipper ship.  He wanted something even bigger and better.  But as someone of immense wealth, the push for ever bigger and better became an obsession. “size mattered—as it always had. When it quickly became insufficient to be merely big, then yours had to be bigger. For how shall it profit a man to have a big yacht if somebody else has a bigger one?”

Personally, I don’t like boats that tip sideways, i.e., heel.  My idea of a boat is that it has to have a swimming pool although,  “I always say that if you encounter a really rough sea in a sailing yacht, you regret having left port. But if you encounter a really rough sea in a motor yacht, you regret having been born.”   …

Perkins had lots of experience sailing, and the author details not only how he accumulated that knowledge but also how he amassed his huge personal fortune at HP and as a venture capitalist. Yet the boat Perkins proposed building would cost 20% of his net worth.  He loved doing things in a big way and his goal in the development of the new yacht/ship was nothing short of revolutionizing the way sailing is done and ships designed.

One interesting anecdote:  Patrick O’Brian, whose stories Perkins had all read and loved was invited once to tour the Mediterranean on one of Perkins’ huge yachts.  <i>After all, O’Brian had written well-paced seafaring sagas that always got the details right about sailing—he knew a scupper from a schooner, a jib from a jibe. Unfortunately, as an incredulous Perkins recounted it, O’Brian was clueless how a sailboat actually worked. When he wasn’t steering recklessly or causing more than 10,000 square feet of sail to flail about, he was either drunk or seasick (or both).</l>

<i>Now, at seventy-four, Perkins was setting out to transform the art of sailing. His $130-million yacht, anchored a few hundred yards out in front of the palace, was the Maltese Falcon, a twenty-first century clipper ship that was bigger, faster, higher-tech, more expensive and riskier than any private sailing craft in the world. The Falcon was as long as a football field, forty-two feet wide, twenty feet deep, with three masts, each soaring nearly twenty stories toward the heavens. On each mast were six horizontal yards—ranging from forty feet to seventy-four feet in width—to support the sails. The size of the Falcon was utterly out of scale with anything nearby—the ramshackle fishing boats, the tourist ferries traversing the Bosphorus, even the palace.</i>  The design was unusual.  <i>"the masts were entirely freestanding and, unlike masts on any other boat, they were not stationary, but rotated. The sails were deployed at the push of a button, rolling out from inside each twenty-five-ton mast. Dozens of computers and microprocessors—connected by 131,000 feet of cable and wires—integrated the system, allowing helmsman and crew to control the boat nearly effortlessly. And unlike the clippers of yore, with their vast, white expanses of billowing canvas, the Falcon’s sails in effect formed a nearly flat vertical wing </i>

The competition between billionaires to have the biggest and fastest and most luxurious sailing yacht reached preposterous proportions. Joe Vittoria’s <i>Mirabella V</i>, the largest single masted sloop ever built had a mast of 292 feet (as high as a football field is long) with sails that cost $250,000 and was so heavy it had to be lifted on the boat in pieces with a crane and then assembled on board.  The mast was so high the boat could not transit the Panama Canal since it couldn’t go under the bridge, nor could it pass under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Usually easy to handle, this monstrosity takes 11-14 minutes to tack, and is forbidden by the insurers to jib; it was too risky.  The mast is so high that wind velocities may differ from top to bottom creating its own wind shear.  Sailing in a moderate breeze, with the boat heeled slightly (it had a thirty-three foot keel) the downward pressure on the mast was 400 tons creating enormous strain on the stays and shrouds.  Insurers forbad any heel greater than fifteen degrees as the passengers would have slid over the side or smashed into something. (Thirty degree heels on a traditional sixty-foot sailboat are no big deal.)

What Perkins (and the boat’s designer Perini) managed to do was nothing short of revolutionary. The masts and sails functioned in almost the opposite way they did in a traditional sailing ship.  In the Maltese Falcon, the *masts* rotated while the *yards* were fixed.  This meant the forces working on the hull were very different.  But it also had numerous advantages since there were no stays to get in the way of the sails as they were turned into the wind.   It also meant the masts resided on huge bearings that had to take enormous forces not to mention a complicated system of motors (29 per mast) to operate the sails that moved them in and out of the yards.  Sails were fixed on both the top and bottom. “Separated only by the yards supporting them, the five tightly stretched sails on each mast effectively formed a single vertical wing of 8,600 square feet of sail area. Properly trimmed, each set of sails—with their aerodynamically shaped masts and yards—became a tall airfoil. Even though there were five sails supported on each mast, the wind acted as though it was blowing over only one large single sail.”  He was building “a twenty-first century clipper ship that was bigger, faster, higher-tech, more expensive and riskier than any private sailing craft in the world. The Falcon was as long as a football field, forty-two feet wide, twenty feet deep, with three masts, each soaring nearly twenty stories toward the heavens. On each mast were six horizontal yards—ranging from forty feet to seventy-four feet in width—to support the sails.”

And no one knew if it would work.   A marvelous  digest of biography, economics, risk, and technology all in a nautical setting. Excellent.

For the technically minded, I found this discussion of the relationship of hull length to speed to be quite revealing. Froude’s Law states that maximum hull speed is the square root of a boat’s length at the waterline multiplied by 1.34.* A heavy hull, or one with an inefficient shape, obviously couldn’t approach that full hull speed. And the benefits of length were diminishing, since the relationship between speed and length is not linear, but based on a square root. But even so, Froude’s Law was clear: the longer a boat, the faster it can go. Thus, a 100-foot sailboat in theory could go no faster than 13.4 knots; a 200-foot sailboat, no faster than 19 knots; and a 300-foot sailboat, 23.2 knots. (The Perini hull at the waterline was 257 feet, so its maximum theoretical speed was 21.5 knots—three knots faster than its two diesel engines could make it go.) For skippers who wanted speed—while also having a hull with creature comforts and that could be used for cruising—going long was the only way. For length also produces stability—a boat’s ability to stay upright. In fact, stability goes up exponentially—to the fourth power—as the waterline length increases. Assuming all other measurements equal, if you double the length, then stability goes up sixteen times (2 × 2 × 2 × 2). Stability and length are among the few relationships in physics subject to the fourth power. The tendency to heel increases with length as well, but only by the third power: if you double waterline length, the heeling force goes up only eight times (2 × 2 × 2). So the benefits of length still predominate, as the increase in stability is greater than the tendency to heel. God must be a sailor.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Great Dirigibles

Extraordinarily interesting.  John Toland melds personal recollections and experiences with sound historical research to alway provide for a hard-to-put-down-read.

Did you know that a Dr. Andrews had invented a dirigible that could fly against the wind with no ostensible form of propulsion? He claimed he sailed it like a sailing vessel and it had to do with the shape of the balloon.  He made several demonstration flights but was unable to interest the War Department during the Civil War, his requests for an audience being lost, all sorts of silly reasons. Following the Civil War he tried to form a company that would provide transportation between Washington and New York and to that end formed a company with stock to defray the cost of the Hydrogen. Again he made several very successful flights (he called his device the Aereon) but the company failed along with many others during a stock market crash.  No one has since been able to fly a dirigible with a source of propulsion.  His secret went with him to the grave.

Each of the major advances in airship flight is examined. Most of the record is filled with disasters as inexperience coupled with over-enthusiasm and wild optimism resulted in a lethal combination. But some heroic stories as well:  the efforts of General Nobile to reach the North Pole and his extraordinary survival on ice floes after the crash of the Italia; the tragic loss of the Shenandoah, plus the time when the Los Angeles went vertical while moored (picture included.) These things were immense, stretching over 800 feet in length, longer than any battleship at the time.  Indeed, the military considered them as potent weapons.  Several carried small airplanes that could be lowered and flown off from the airship and then recovered by the pilot flying on to a hook hanging from the airship’s hangar.

The U.S., as virtually the sole producer of helium, a non-explosive, lighter-than-air gas, used airships to good advantage patrolling the east coast during WW II where they were effective in protecting convoys from U-Boats.

Everyone knows the story of the Hindenburg including the near insanity that disaster caused in the radio announcer.  (You can watch the explosion on Youtube).  Few realize the amazing around-the-world trip of the Graf Zeppelin, his (in German the zeppelins took the masculine article) trip that averaged over seventy mph and went through several storms.

For a more detailed account of Zeppelin history, I recommend Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel  (

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