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!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review: Comrades of War

Comrades of War (Cassell Military Paperbacks)Comrades of War by Sven Hassel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up from a book exchange at a B&B I was staying in. Judging from the cover (someone one should do with caution) I thought I was getting a mindless action tale to flip through while on vacation. I was wrong.

Comrades of War is a gritty look at the life of a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers as the Third Reich begins to collapse. There are few battle scenes. Most of the action takes place while they are in a hospital recovering from grievous wounds and drinking themselves to oblivion. There's plenty of fistfights, the guys solve a murder, and one of them even falls in love. then they go back to the front, a place they psychologically never left.

I'd never heard of Sven Hassel before I read this novel. Judging from his other titles, Comrades of War appears to be typical of his work. Many of the characters reappear in his other novels. I looked Hassel up and found him to be as intriguing as the books he wrote. He was Danish and claimed to have fought in the German army on the Eastern Front. Another Danish writer researched his past and said Hassel was in fact a Nazi informer in occupied Denmark. Claims and counterclaims shot back and forth and I am not sure who is right, although I'm leaning towards the "Hassel was a fake" theory.

Whatever he was, Hassel was a great writer who understood the madness of war and the mindset of soldiers. You end up sympathizing with these guys despite their being on the wrong side. They never commit atrocities (at least not in this book) and they hate the officer corps and the Nazi party members, who are invariably shown to be corrupt, brutal, and weak. Well worth a read.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

New research collection on Quantrill and his bushwhacker band

I've mentioned William Clarke Quantrill several times on this blog. This dangerous bushwhacker blazed his way to fame during the Civil War and even makes a cameo appearance in my Civil War novel.

Now a new collection is forming at the Public Library in Gentry, Arkansas, devoted to Quantrill, his men, his opponents, and the Border Wars in general. The plan is to bring together all the primary and secondary sources on Quantrill to build a definitive collection for scholars, educators, and the general public.

There's also a blog devoted to the collection with lots of information on individual members of Quantrill's band. It's called Josephine.

Who's Josephine? A certain young bushwhacker named Jimmy asks this same question of Jesse James. Read my book for the answer (or just go to that blog)!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The print edition of my Civil War novel now 25% off!

The print edition of A Fine Likeness, my Civil War novel, has now been reduced from $12.99 to $9.35. This is your chance to grab this exciting and meticulously researched historical novel at a significant discount!

If the recession is pinching your home especially hard, read it for free by asking your library to carry it. Just give them the title, author, and ISBN, provided in the link above.

And if you've already read my novel, thank you! Please help out  a struggling writer by reviewing it on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever else you feel like. Constructive criticism, whether in the review or via email, is always appreciated. I had one reader, a complete stranger, even send me a list of typos in the electronic edition that I corrected before A Fine Likeness went to press. Now that's the kind of reader I love!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: Seize and Hold, Master Strokes on the Battlefield

Seize And Hold: Master Strokes On The Battlefield (Cassell Military Classics)Seize And Hold: Master Strokes On The Battlefield by Bryan Perrett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book focuses one military tactic, the coup de main, by giving eleven examples of how it has been done well. Perrett writes in a clear, detailed, and exciting style that makes this volume a great read as well as a great resource.

As those familiar with my writings know, I'm more interested in the American Civil War and Colonial Wars. My interest drops off quickly after World War One. Despite the fact that the majority of chapters are devoted to World War Two, Korean, or Vietnam battles, I still found this book very interesting. The two chapters on the First World War, covering the Romanian Campaign of 1916 and Rommel's adventures on the Italian front in 1917, were of course my favorite!

One good aspect of this book is that many of its examples are of lesser-known engagements. Not only do we get the Romanian Campaign (the first truly motorized offensive) we also get a battle from the Russo-Polish War, the quick German conquest of Belgium and Holland in 1940, and the British victory over the Italian in North Africa.

The chapters are rather short and not definitive studies, so specialists may end up skipping some parts. Still, this book will please any reader interested in military history.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 25, 2012

University of Missouri Press to close

While Friday is usually reserved for my Civil War photo series, I just received some bad news I must share. The University of Missouri Press will be shut down, according to an article by the Columbia Tribune.

The press was founded in 1958 and in more than half a century has published hundreds of books on Missouri-related subjects.

UM System President Tim Wolfe announced yesterday that the press will begin to be phased out beginning in July. The press has been running at a $400,000 annual deficit despite recent staff cuts.

While that sounds like a lot, academic presses aren't designed to be money earners. They exist to publish books that aren't financially viable yet are important for the dissemination of knowledge, like the Collected Works of Langston Hughes and fiction by regional authors.

The University of Missouri Press also has an active Civil War line that I've used extensively in my own research. One recent book is Mark Lause's study of the 1864 Confederate invasion, the same campaign that provides the backdrop to my Civil War novel. Lause's book only covered the first half of the campaign and I had heard there was another volume in the works. I hope he can find another publisher.

Four hundred grand. Missouri can't spare that much to keep from being the first state without an academic press? None of the local millionaires with their giant plantation-style homes would cough up the money? The Walton family, owners of Walmart, live just a short drive away. Why didn't they write a check?

Because they don't care.

This is a bad day for Missouri writers and readers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Our upcoming photo exhibition on Ethiopia

My brother-in-law Andrès, the same talented guy who designed the cover to my Civil War novel, has made a poster for my wife's and my upcoming photo exhibition. The photos are from our travels around Ethiopia and feature the people and places of Africa's oldest nation. All proceeds go to A Glimmer of Hope, which specializes in rural education. You can read more about them in an article I wrote here.

We're opening on June 1 at one of our favorite bars here in Santander, Spain. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, come to the grand opening! If you can't make it, check out two series I wrote for Gadling about this fascinating African nation. One was a tour around Ethiopia, and the other was about my two months living in Harar, a medieval walled city near the Somali border.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Civil War Missouri enters a new phase

In 1861, things looked good for the Confederate cause in Missouri. The victories at Wilson's Creek and Lexington were heralded as a sign of things to come. The optimism didn't last. Soon the Confederate forces were pushed into the southwestern part of the state, where they stayed for the rest of the year. At the battle of Pea Ridge in March, 1862, the rebels were solidly defeated in northwest Arkansas and hopes of conquering Missouri for the South began to fade.

With attention shifted to New Orleans, which had just fallen to the Union, and the slow Union creep up the Mississippi River, those rebels still in Missouri must have felt somewhat forgotten. That didn't stop them from fighting, however. Guerrillas and small units of regular troops skirmished with Union troops regularly.

In the first three weeks of May, there were skirmishes at Bloomfield (twice), French Point (several times), Center Creek (several times), Big Creek, Carthage, Hog Island, Richfield, and Santa Fe Road. And these are only the skirmishes that made it into the Official Records! Several smaller ones were probably not reported, plus the numerous cases of individual violence would not have been reported except in local newspapers.

The war was far from over.

The above drawing is by Alfred Waud and is captioned "On skirmish line Officer turning to look at a dying soldier". This hasty sketch immediately gripped me when I was looking through the Library of Congress collection. It looks like it was drawn from life and is more expressive than many more polished works of art.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Review: WAR by Sebastian Junger

WarWar by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Junger, more famous for his book The Perfect Storm, was an embedded reporter for several long stays over the course of fifteen months with a platoon at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. His close-up look at the boys/men of the platoon and the gritty reality of their war makes this one of the best books on modern armed conflict I've read.

His view of the soldiers is sympathetic but not blind to individual flaws. His main focus is on how these soldiers hold up under stress, and how a bond is forged whereby they will risk their own lives for others without thinking.

Individual soldiers are painted in broad brush strokes and we don't get to know much about their lives before the war. As we find out, that is mostly irrelevant, it's their life in this one valley getting shot at all the time that's the only one that matters to them. The ending is the toughest part, where we see how these young guys have to adjust to normal life again. Most fail, and end up reenlisting in the army they hate.

I could have used a bit more detail about some of the men, as well as definitions of some of the countless acronyms the armed forces seem to like so much. Also, the operations map in my mass market paperback edition is so small as to be all but unreadable. These are minor points, however. If you want to understand the psychology of war, this is a great place to start.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 19, 2012

More on the Civil War pterodactyl photograph

Earlier this week I did a post debunking the Civil War pterodactyl photograph that's been making the rounds on the Internet. A five-minute check of its origins story found many obvious lies.

Now the ultracool conspiracy blog Guerrilla Explorer dug deeper to find out more. Guerrilla Explorer loves a good mystery, but also happens to have a brain so he isn't taken in by surface appearances. He did what I didn't, which was to look not at the story, but at the source. That turns out to be Haxan Films, the same folks that brought us The Blair Witch Project, one of my favorite horror flicks. Read more at the link above. He also has some more info about other living pterodactyl tales that supplements my post on the famous Thunderbird photo.

I still think this would make a good short story. . .

Friday, May 18, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Black Sailor

A couple of days ago wargamer, blogger, and Canadian army chaplain Mad Padre asked me about black sailors in the Union Navy, so for this week's Civil War Photo Friday I'm showing this young fellow.

About 18,000 blacks served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. An unknown number also served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. Interestingly, the Navy was not officially segregated, although some individual commanders made the white and black crewmen eat and sleep separately. The Navy wasn't segregated until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered it to be.

There's not much information about this sailor, unfortunately--no name, no exact date. It's sad that so many of these old photographs have lost their context.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

More on the Gadling travel bloggers summit

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently flew from Spain to Washington, DC, to attend the Gadling travel bloggers summit. It was great to finally put faces to names and we got to see some of the city too. My fellow Gadling blogger Laurel Miller has just published an account of that trip. She's so complete that I really have nothing to add. If you want to know what happens when a bunch of travel bloggers get together for a long weekend in a strange city, check it out. It's good, bad, and occasionally ugly!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I love writing for a living

The title of this post says it all. I love writing for a living!

I got back from the Gadling travel bloggers' summit a week ago and since then my work has led me to research the gunfight at the OK Corral, the history of barbed wire, the Lincoln assassination, torture museums around the world, the UFO crash at Roswell, and modern pterodactyl sightings! I've also networked with a ton of bloggers, debunked a cryptozoology photograph, prepped a pitch to speak at a writing conference, and wrote a press release for a photo exhibition my wife and I are doing in June.

Probably the most challenging thing I've had to do this week came from my fiction, when I wrote myself into an interesting corner and had to figure out what happens when the all-white crew of a Civil War Union gunboat has to take a black regiment upriver on a secret and possibly illegal mission. It may become the most interesting chapter in my novel and I didn't even plan it!

How can't you love a job like this?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Civil War soldiers shoot down a pterodactyl???

This photo has been making the rounds for some time, and I have to say it warms my heart. Giant monsters in the Civil War? Yeah, I'm there!

It appears to show a group of Union soldiers proudly displaying a pterodactyl they've shot down. It's similar to a couple of other photos that I published in my post about the Thunderbird photo. As with those photos, I didn't ask permission to republish this. If it's really as old as it appears, then it's in the public domain. It could simply be an old fake. If it's a modern fake, then I'm in breach of copyright, but the only way the creators could sue me is if they admitted faking the photo! I'll take that chance. :-)

This image first appeared on Freakylinks, a cryptozoology page. Hit the link for a larger format of this photo plus an article about it. The author claims to have found this image stuck like a bookmark in a book titled Search for the Outer Space Gods by Jonathan Ferody, published by Harpsong Press in 1977. Searches on Amazon, ABE, and Google produced no such title or author. There is a Harpsong Press, but it wasn't established until 2003 and only published one book.

The author also states he contacted various professionals who said it looked real, including "Professor M. Nance Darbrow from the University of Florida Paleontology Department" and "Dr. Christian Barscuz, Anthropology Department, University of Arizona." At this point my bullshit detector went off the scale. I studied at the University of Arizona Anthropology department in the late 1990s and remember no such professor, even though Dr. Barscuz was supposedly there in 1998. An Internet search failed to bring up either of these two researchers at any university.

What's interesting is that this story was picked up by many other websites who simply repeated the information without spending five minutes to check, which all the time I devoted to this. Life is short, after all.

But I'm not one of those grumpy skeptics. I love the fact that some Civil War reenactors got together with a B-movie castoff and made this photo. Maybe I should make some of my own for my next book cover? At least my Civil War horror books are clearly labeled as fiction!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Hanging the Lincoln Conspirators

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was in DC earlier this week for the Gadling travel bloggers summit. I'll post more on that soon. In my spare time I managed to sneak away and visit Ford's Theatre, where John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Hit the link to read more about this fascinating place and its attached museum.

One odd relic I spotted in the museum was this display of pieces of rope from the hanging of four of the Lincoln conspirators. Booth avoided hanging when was shot and killed as he resisted arrest after a long manhunt.

Below is a Library of Congress photo of the hanging of, from left to right, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. Surratt was the first woman to be executed by the United States government and there were calls for clemency on her behalf, including from several of the jurors who found her guilty. Several other conspirators who had lesser roles in the affair received prison sentences.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Back from the DC Gadling travel blogger summit!

I'm back in Santander all jetlagged and happy. The Gadling travel blogger summit was a huge success. I had only met a few of my coworkers and it was nice to finally put more faces to names. We had some productive planning meetings for how to improve the site, plus lots of social activities like a gastrotour of historic DC and a visit to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

The Smithsonian was a real highlight. The above photo is of Titanoboa, a 48-foot, 2,500 pound snake that was the terror of the prehistoric world. Below is a more modern predator, taken alongside Bu Bambú. My son always sneaks a toy into my luggage when I'm going on a trip, and I take photos of my surprise travel companion wherever I go. Bu Bambú is one of the Gormitis. This TV show (and series of toys, and comic book, etc.) is about a bunch of kids with a secret lab under their parents' house where they can turn into monsters to fight bad guy monsters in a parallel universe. Yeah, it hits all the buttons and is hugely successful.

Of course the best part of the weekend was getting to know my fellow travel bloggers better and swapping travel tales. The Gadling team is an eclectic bunch of writers specializing in adventure travel, food, cruises, outdoors, and more. So head on over to the world's best travel blog and check it out!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: John Alphonso Beall, 14th Texas Cavalry

Now that the April A to Z Challenge is over (whew!) I'm getting back to my regular Civil War Photo Friday posts. This guy is Third Lieutenant John Alphonso Beall of Company D, 14th Texas Cavalry Regiment. His regiment was formed in the summer of 1861 and saw action in many different battles and campaigns. Like many regiments from west of the Mississippi, they were sent east for the duration. This genealogical website has some more information.

An interesting fact about this regiment was that they were dismounted a year into their service and fought as infantry for the rest of the war. This happened to many cavalry units because of a shortage of mounts, and tended to have a bad effect on morale. Guys like John signed up to serve as glamorous cavalry, not foot-slogging ground pounders! That disappointment didn't stop the 14th from fighting well and fighting until the end.

John is armed with a Spencer carbine, an early repeating rifle that some Northern soldiers had. John must have retrieved it from a dead Union soldier.

Judging from his photo, John seems like a nice guy, with an open face and a ready smile. It would have been sad to have to shoot him on the battlefield, but with him shooting at me, I doubt I would have have hesitated. I wonder how many of these of veterans of the blue and gray carried the faces of the enemy slain in their memories.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On the road again. . .

Tomorrow I'm flying to Washington DC for a conference with my fellow travel bloggers at Gadling. I'm looking forward to meeting lots of talented writers who until now have mostly just been names to me. I'll try to check in over the next five days while I'm there, and will certainly be back on schedule by early next week. After the April A to Z Challenge, I bet lots of people are taking a breather from blogging right now!

If you absolutely can't live without my writing for five whole days (come on, admit it!) you might want to check out my Gadling articles. In the past month I've written on a wide range of topics, including the Lincoln Highway (the first cross-country highway), Carlisle Castle celebrating its 1000th birthday, fake Stonehenges, a guidebook for African-Americans during the days of segregation, my lodging a complaint about rude airport security staff, and much more.

See you soon!