Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Civil War Book Review: General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West

General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the WestGeneral Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert Castel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a thorough study of an important (although not very good) Confederate general in the Trans-Mississippi. General Price was a major figure in leading Missouri into rebellion and continued the fight after the rebel armies were pushed into Arkansas. After the South was defeated, he was one of the rebel leaders who fled to Mexico to start a new life.

This book covers his entire Civil War career, including the period when he was transferred east of the Mississippi. Books on Civil War Missouri and Arkansas skip this part of his career and books on the war east of the Mississippi tend to give him short shrift, so these chapters are of interest.

Of main interest to me were the chapters on Missouri, especially his 1864 invasion that serves as a backdrop to my novel, A Fine Likeness. These are very detailed and give a lot of insight into Price's strengths and many weaknesses. Always brave, always determined, he was not always competent and led his army to disaster on more than one occasion.

The maps are well done as well. All too often, military histories fall down on the maps. Luckily the author and publisher did a good job on simple yet detailed maps of the region in general and specific battles.

If you're interested in the war west of the Mississippi, you should definitely read this book.

View all my reviews

Friday, October 21, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: hardtack

Hardtack was one of the staples in the diet of both armies in the Civil War. It was supposed to last longer than regular bread and be more portable. Maybe it was, but that didn't stop soldiers from complaining about it. They had various names for it, from "tooth breakers" to "sheet metal crackers" to "worm castles." Judging from that last one I'm thinking it wasn't so long-lasting after all.

Hardtack was rarely eaten straight. The men dunked it in any liquid available in order to soften it up. Mixed with salt pork and dried vegetables, the other two army staples, it would make a reasonably balanced but unsavory meal.

Early in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, the protagonist and his band of bushwhackers ambush a Union supply wagon. Once they send the soldiers running, they steal a barrel of gunpowder but leave the salt pork and hard tack. They're being fed by local secessionists so they see no reason to fill up their stomachs with bad army food when a home-cooked meal is waiting for them!

This Wikimedia Commons image shows some hard tack preserved in the Wentworth Museum in Pensacola, Florida. If you want to try making your own hardtack, check out this hardtack recipe.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tell my boss to send me to Afghanistan

As many of you know, I'm a travel blogger for Gadling, the world's most popular travel blog. I've done several series on adventure travel, including one on taking a road trip around Ethiopia, and another on living in an African city. I did another on visiting Somaliland.

In my more than 20 years of adventure travel, I've never been to Afghanistan, and it's always been at the top of my list. I visited Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province in the 1990's and spent several pleasant weeks among the Afghan communities there. Afghanistan's long history and varied cultures would make a great Gadling series. . .

. . .but I can't afford it. So I need your help. If you'd like to see a boots-on-the-ground series on Afghanistan written by yours truly, tell Gadling to be my sugar daddy. I'll write about culture, history, and daily life, all the things the news ignores. I already know an adventure travel company that can take me there. If enough people vote, maybe Gadling will send me!

Please leave a comment at this link, telling Gadling they need a series on Afghanistan.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Booker Prize vs. Literature Prize: how self-appointed guardians of "art" just don't get it

As the entire literary world knows by now, Julian Barnes has won the Man Booker Prize. I haven't read any of the Booker shortlist this year so I can't judge whether his was the best, but he's a damn good writer and many pundits are saying this is more of a lifetime achievement award for him.

Also in the news is the whole kerfuffle over a rival prize being launched, The Literature Prize. Backers of the new prize claim this needed to be done because the Booker "now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement".

The Booker people fired back that they don't see how those two things are mutually exclusive.

The Literature Prize people said that, "a space has opened up for a new prize which is unequivocally about excellence - even if that sometimes means shortlisted books are more challenging and don't necessarily fall under the easy description of readable."

OK, while I may not write for the TLS or be on the Booker shortlist, let me just weigh in here. The purpose of writing is communication! Too much self-styled "literature" these days is overly elaborate prose with no center, no meaning. It's tinsel, pretty but essentially worthless. MFA programs are churning out writers by the thousand every year who have no real idea what makes a good novel, so they emphasize style or substance.  They're poseurs, almost exclusively upper middle class, with little or no real-world experience. Trust me, I've met plenty. I've been to the readings. I've read the books and journals. I gave that whole world a chance. Really, I tried.

One successful travel writer and author I know graduated from a leading MFA program and complained that they never discussed plot in her classes! She had to learn how to do that by actually (gasp!) reading and writing a lot.

I don't care how much your prose shines, if you don't have a story, you don't have a novel. And if you can't make a reasonably intelligent reader understand what the fuck you're trying to say, you're not a writer.

The third interesting thing about the Booker Prize this year was the first Western to make a shortlist. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, a fellow Canadian. I'm glad to see a genre I love being accepted by the publishing elite. Here's hoping more great Westerns will be noticed by them in the future. The Sisters Brothers is now on my own personal shortlist of books to read. Expect a review here when I do.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ride Around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863 out now!

Today Osprey Publishing released Ride Around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863, my latest in a series of Civil War books. This one's nonfiction, but my Civil War novel will come out next month!

This book focuses on one of the Civil War's longest cavalry raids--Confederate cavalryman J.O. Shelby's ride up from Arkansas and through Union-held Missouri. His raiders destroyed infrastructure, skirmished with Union detachments, captured small forts, and led thousands of bluecoats on a merry chase that almost ended in disaster for Shelby at the Battle of Marshall.

This raid secured Shelby's reputation as one of the greatest raiders of the Civil War, yet it is often overlooked like so many other exciting events in the Trans-Mississippi Civil War. Two earlier raids he was on, led by General Marmaduke, are also covered.

Shelby was on Price's 1864 invasion of Missouri and is mentioned briefly in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. Shelby makes an appearance in the as-yet-unnamed sequel. One of the protagonists in that book is in Shelby's Iron Brigade, but deserts in order to fight the war within the war, the supernatural battle between Order and Chaos. The second book will be out sometime in 2012.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Welcome all new followers!

Participating in the Pay it Forward blogfest was lots of fun. I got a bunch of new followers and found some cool blogs I'd never heard of. It also turns out that one of the bloggers I picked, David over at Guerrilla Explorer, has just published his novel, a thriller filled with conspiracies and cryptids. So hit the link and check it out.

In a further attempt to make this blog more visible, I'm registering with Technorati, which explains the claim code that follows. T44E5PJRF3PX

That means nothing to my readers. Back with some more Civil War tomorrow!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Guest blogging about Ethiopia on the Osprey Publishing blog

I have a guest post over at the Osprey Publishing blog about the city wall in Harar, Ethiopia. As regular readers of this blog know, I spent two months living in Harar earlier this year and wrote a series of posts about it.

Osprey being a military history publisher, this post focuses on how the medieval city wall helped preserve Harar's unique culture from outsiders. Head on over there and check it out! I'll be doing some more guest posts over there soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pay it forward blogfest: my three picks

Today I'm skipping my usual Civil War Photo Friday to participate in the Pay it Forward Blogfest. We're all supposed to pick three blogs that deserve more attention. So here we go. . .

A daily dose of the Civil War
The Civil War Daily Gazette tells you all the latest news, 150 years after it happened. That's right, this tireless blogger is going the distance and posting every day until 1865, um, I mean 2015. I found this blog a couple of months ago and quickly got addicted. It's one of the few blogs I visit daily.

Grumpy writer tells all
Dean Wesley Smith may already be known to you. He is a hardworking midlister like yours truly and has decided to mix traditional publishing with self-publishing via Kindle. Because he's chosen a similar career path, I read his regular rants about the publishing industry and where it's headed. I do find him overly negative about publishers and agents and don't agree with his analysis all the time. That's a good thing. There would be no point in reading him if I always agreed with him!

Lost Treasure! Mysteries of History! Cryptids! Conspiracies!
Guerrilla Explorer takes on the shadowy areas of the world and history. Did Hitler fake his death? Probably not, but there's some intriguing evidence that makes this less silly than it sounds. I'm not convinced those Russian scientists will find anything on their Yeti hunt though. Oh, and the post on the Student Loan Conspiracy was downright depressing.

Head on over to these blogs and see if you like them. If you do, give them some love and leave a comment. tell them I sent you!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Weapons shortage in the Civil War

Flipping through Carolyn Bartels' The Civil War in Missouri Day by Day I found an interesting entry for the skirmish at Linn Creek on October 14. I'll tell you about it today because tomorrow I'll be participating in the Pay it Forward Blogfest.

Union Major Clark Wright had heard that the town of Linn Creek in south central Missouri was occupied by rebels, so he sent two of his men in civilian clothing to check it out. They didn't come back and fearing the worst, Wright advanced with his entire regiment towards town. Local rumor said there were 200 rebels there. He surrounded the town and ordered the rebels to surrender. Instead they tried to shoot their way out. The Union troops immediately returned fire. The fight was brisk for a short time but because both sides had good cover only one man was wounded, on the rebel side.

As Major Wright noted in his report, "The scene was a wild one. The activity of the cavalry in guarding the avenues of the place, arresting the citizens, and the rebels running to and for; the screams of secesh wives, daughters, and children; the firing from both sides echoing back form the bluffs on either side, made the whole thing look somewhat frantic."

After half an hour the rebels realized they weren't going to escape and surrendered. At this point Major Wright discovered he wasn't facing 200 rebels, merely 37. Along with the Confederates he captured, "horse, 5; mules, 2; guns, 26; holster-pistols, 2; 1 keg powder; 1/2 bushel of bullets."

It's interesting that for 37 rebels he only got 28 guns. Assuming nobody had more than one gun, that still leaves 9 rebels unarmed. Supply was a serious problem for the Confederates in the Trans-Mississippi throughout the war. Numerous Union reports from Missouri in 1861 state that the captured arms were shotguns, squirrel guns, or antique muskets. It was a lucky rebel who had an Enfield like the one pictured above, and few had more modern weapons such as the Springfield rifled musket or Sharps rifle. As the war dragged on, the rebels managed to take better weapons off dead or captured Union soldiers. They would never get enough.

Wright never said what happened to those two missing men. They weren't listed as casualties or desertions, so I assume they came out OK.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book review: A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times

A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All TimesA Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times by George Cameron Stone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A flawed but classic study.
My high school library had a copy of this book and I spent many hours poring over the descriptions of odd weapons and staring at the hundreds of photographs. When I grew up and started researching and writing military history, I consulted it again. What a disappointment! This book is filled with mistakes. Stone was an expert on Asian arms and armor but makes countless errors when he writes outside his area of expertise. He should have had a coauthor!

That said, you can still learn a lot about Asian militaria from this book, and the photos are a goldmine of information no matter what region you study. I suggest buying The Complete Encyclopaedia of Arms and Weapons, edited by Tarassuk and Blair, instead of Stone's work. If you have deep pockets, buy both.

NOTE: This review is of the original 1961 edition. I haven't seen the later facsimile edition. Another reviewer said the photos are poor quality in the facsimile. They weren't too good in the original, although they were clear enough. I suppose they may have lost some quality in the reprint.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I've added an RSS feed for Civil War Horror

On the upper right-hand side of this blog you'll see a newly added RSS feed. As the publication date of my Civil War novel approaches, I'll be blogging more frequently and will be adding special guest bloggers and giveaways. Be sure to catch all the action by subscribing to my feed!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: The Fog of War

"The fog of war". . .we often hear that term to describe the chaos and confusion of the battlefield. Back in the days of black powder, however, it was quite literally a fog. Check out this Wikimedia Commons photos of some Confederate reenactors setting off a volley. Each one gets a little puff of gunsmoke in his face while a big cloud of it shoots out of the end of his rifle.

I use this fact in several scenes in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. Faces are an important element of the plot, and the fact that an enemy soldier literally becomes faceless when he shoots at you gets used for symbolic effect.

Strangely enough, this photo was taken in England. the caption says, "Civil War reenactment at American Museum, Bath The American Museum in Bath is dedicated to showing how our transatlantic cousins lived from the 1680s to the 1860s. Set in Claverton Manor, this gorgeous neo-classical house was bought by two Americans in 1961 to display their collection of American furniture and artefacts. Eighteen period rooms show the development of America, from the time of the earliest English settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Look out for re-enactments and special workshops. These include displays of Native American dancing and a re-enactment of a Civil War battle. The American Museum, Claverton Manor, Bath BA2 7BD."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Armies of the Adowa Campaign gets its first review, and it's five stars!

My Armies of the Adowa Campiagn 1896: Italian Disaster in Ethiopia has been out less than a month and has already gotten its first review on Amazon. It's a five-star review from one of Amazon's Top 500 reviewers! I've included it below.

"Whenever you order a new book from Osprey, you never know what you are going to get. At worst, the author is an enthusiastic amateur who knows everything about the subject but writes terribly. Other times, the book is from one Osprey's "period experts" and the books reads like someone's masters thesis. Sometimes, the books turn out great and are models of how to cover a complex subject in an easy to read format. Fortunately, "Armies of the Adowa Campaign" is an example of Osprey Publishing at its very best.

"The author Sean McLachlan, is a good writer and it is easy to follow the intricacies of this complex military campaign. As in the best Osprey titles, McLachlan did his research and he obviously loves the subject. In addition, the maps are clear, the photographs are interesting and the illustrations by Raffaele Ruggeri are absolutely first rate. A better introduction to the Italian disaster in Ethiopia cannot be imagined.

"As a final note, for those really interested in this campaign be sure to check out "La Guerre Coloniali Italiane 1885/1900" by Raffaele Ruggeri, the illustrator of the book reviewed. It is a bilingual English/Italian work that follows a format very similar to the one popularized by Osprey Publishing. It is 88 pages long and is filled with great photos and illustrations. It will take a little leg work to find it but it is a great supplement to the "Armies of Adowa""

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book review: The Civil War in Louisiana

The Civil War in LouisianaThe Civil War in Louisiana by John D. Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In his exhaustive look at the war in Louisiana, Winters examines not only the military aspects of the war, but their political, economic, and to a lesser extent social aspects as well. He goes into great detail and provides a thorough synthesis of the war in that state.

I had two complaints, though. First was the lack of an overall map of Louisiana. This would have helped with the large number of place names, many of which are unfamiliar to anyone not from there.

The second problem was Winters' coverage of the black population. A white author writing in 1963, his attitudes are a bit antiquated. He can't seem to understand why slaves would rebel if given the chance, and considers this to be nothing but common criminality. He is also overly critical of the ability of black units, many of which were given scanty training and scantier provisions.

These two problems do somewhat lessen the value of the book, yet it is still important reading for anyone studying the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Studying the page proofs for A Fine Likeness

The ebook design company 52 Novels has sent me the page proofs for A Fine Likeness. I haven't looked through the whole thing yet but so far I'm very satisfied with the result. Since my cover is simple two-tone with a black and white photo, it transferred to black and white very well. And now that the new color Kindle is out, readers will be able to see my brother-in-law's design in all its glory.

While I still have a fair amount of close examination to go through before I give the final thumbs up, it looks like my novel is one step closer to completion!

I chose 52 Novels on the recommendation of several fellow midlisters and because their rates are reasonable. I looked at the programming and formatting end of the operation and figured that with a couple of days of hair pulling I could do it myself, but decided that a little extra work for Gadling would more than cover the cost. Lots of Kindle and Smashwords authors are formatting their own ebooks. For me, though, it made financial sense to get someone else to do it.