Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Paper Gods and Iron Men: Ordinary people in extraordinary situations

By Kevin Cowdall

A few months ago The Telegraph published one of it’s periodic ‘Best of…’ lists, selecting the ‘Best War and History Books Ever Written’; a mix (or mish-mash, depending on your point of view) of historical fiction and non-fictional history.

Such selections are always subjective and, whilst we all have our own particular favourites, many of us would, I think, certainly include several novels from the list, and might well disagree with the selection of others. For the record, The Telegraph’s list included: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler's List, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour and Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogies, amongst others.

What struck me most about the choice of fiction on the list was that, almost without exception, the main focus of these works is not on the perceived glory / actual horrors of the fighting (indeed several are, undeniably, anti-war in tone), but on the individual, often poignant, experiences of the participants, both combatants and civilians, and how conflict and struggle on such a scale can permanently change individuals and societies alike. The selected novels do not glorify war and few, if any, have a recognisable derring-do, swashbuckling ‘hero’ in the traditional sense of, say, The Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas, Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli et al in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, those of classic mythology and epic poetry such as Beowulf, The Aeneid, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the Arthurian legend; nor even the anti-heroes and adventurers found in the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, H. Rider Haggard, G. A. Henty or Jules Verne.

As Remarque commented about the semi-autobiographical novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, “This book is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure”: He takes no overt political or moral stance as such, does not glorify or condemn; he simply tells a story and lets the reader fill in their own blanks. It is this which has, perhaps, contributed to making it (and the others on the list) such an enduring classic.

Likewise, Tolkien opines, “Courage is found in unlikely places.” In other words, like the characters in the above stories, recognition is not consciously sought, but nor is it shirked in the face of adversity or seemingly insurmountable odds. Characters become merely victims of the singular, and often bewildering, situations in which they find themselves, driven by, and responding to, unprecedented circumstances in a manner beyond their accepted norms of experience or comprehension. As Harper Lee has Atticus Finch declare in To Kill a Mockingbird, courage is, “When you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what”. Such is the theme of my novella, Paper Gods and Iron Men.

Set in the North Africa Campaign of World War II, Paper Gods and Iron Men, is a story of endurance and survival, of ‘ordinary people in extraordinary situations’ - a phrase I have used repeatedly in publicity material and interviews to explain what the story, despite its setting, is really about. Two mismatched British Army officers have come together at a temporary aerodrome to be flown out. When their plane is shot down the two are the only survivors and begin the long trek north across the desert...

This Kindle edition is published with the short story, Flanagan's Mule, which shares the theme of personal determination and resolve, and which is set in a South-American mining community in the 1950s.

As Yann Martel reflects in Life of Pi, “Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate”, and Margaret Mitchell observes in Gone with the Wind, “Hardships make or break people.”

Paper Gods and Iron Men is available from the Kindle Store on Amazon at:



Tremendous new voice
"These are two wonderful stories of survival. Cowdall has an expertly controlled style and is a tremendous new voice. At times I was reminded of the early, and best, Norman Mailer."
Paul Pickering (author of Over the Rainbow and The Leopard's Wife)
Amazon / Goodreads Reviews

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Historical Fiction Enticements

Revenge and Retribution
Anna Belfrage

Revenge and Retribution is the sixth book in Anna Belfrage’s time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.

Life in the Colony of Maryland is no sinecure – as Alex and Matthew Graham well know. But nothing in their previous life has prepared them for the mayhem that is about to be unleashed upon them.

Being labelled a witch is not a good thing in 1684, so it is no wonder Alex Graham is aghast at having such insinuations thrown at her. Even worse, it’s Matthew’s brother-in-law, Simon Melville, who points finger at her.

Not that the ensuing hearing is her main concern, because nowadays Alex’s entire life is tainted by the fear of what Philip Burley will do to them once he gets hold of them – there is no longer any ‘if’ about it. On a sunny May afternoon, it seems Philip Burley will at last revenge himself on Matthew for every single perceived wrong. Over the course of twenty-four hours, Alex’s life – and that of her family’s – is permanently changed.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Alex also has to cope with the loss of one of her sons. Forcibly adopted by the former Susquehannock, Samuel is dragged from Alex’s arms to begin a new life in the wilderness.

How is Alex to survive all this? And will she be able to put her damaged family back together?

Amazon UK
Amazon US


Kingdom of Rebels
Book 3 of the Rebels & Brothers Series
Derek Birks

When all hope is gone, only death lies in wait…

England in 1468 is a nervous kingdom. King Edward IV has fallen out with his chief ally, the powerful Earl of Warwick.

Ned Elder, a young lord whose sword helped to put Edward on the throne, has been forced out of England by Warwick. Far away on the Scottish border, a beleaguered fort, Crag Tower, desperately awaits Ned’s return. Led by his fiery sister, Eleanor, the dwindling garrison is all that remains of his brave army of retainers.

Unknown to all except the loyal knight, Ragwulf, Eleanor has Ned’s young son in her charge - a son who has never seen his father. But, as border clansmen batter the gates with fire, the castle seems certain to fall.

One by one Ned’s family and friends are caught up in Warwick’s web of treason. The fate of the Elders and those who serve them lies once more in the balance as all are drawn back to Yorkshire where they face old enemies once more.

Eleanor can only hope that Ned will soon return. She must fight to keep that hope alive… and when Lady Eleanor fights, she takes no prisoners...

Amazon UK
Amazon US


Josiah Stubb
Chuck Lovatt

It is 1758 and The Seven Years War is raging. The military might of the British and French empires collide in a desperate bid to control the key strategic Fortress of Louisbourg and, in turn, Quebec and French-held North America.

One man caught amidst the bloodshed is the young grenadier, Josiah Stubb. Raised by a whore amidst poverty and incest, Josiah seemed doomed from birth to a life in the gutter. His attempt to leave his sordid past behind leads him to Louisbourg, but it comes back to haunt him in the form of a gifted officer, battling his own inner demons.

As the siege blazes towards its inevitable bloody climax, will Josiah live to overcome the formidable obstacles that keep him chained to his past, or will his aspirations for a better life die with him on the brooding shores of Ile Royale?

Amazon (Universal)


City of Ladies
Sarah Kennedy

It’s midwinter in 1539, and Catherine Havens Overton has just given birth to her second child, a daughter. The convent in which she was raised is now part of the Overton lands, and Catherine’s husband William owns the properties that once belonged to her mother’s family. With a son, Robert, and her new daughter, Veronica, Catherine’s life as the mistress of a great household should be complete.

Henry VIII’s England has not been kind to many of the evicted members of religious houses, and Catherine has gathered about her a group of former nuns in hopes of providing them a chance to serve in the village of Havenston, her City of Ladies.
Catherine’s own past haunts her. Her husband suspects that Catherine’s son is not his child, and his ambitions lie with service at court. Then the women of Overton House begin to disappear, and though one of them is found brutally murdered nearby, William forces Catherine to go to Hatfield House, where the young Elizabeth Tudor lives, to improve the family’s standing—and to ensure, for her own safety, that she is as far away from connections to her old convent as possible.

Reluctantly, Catherine obeys, only to find herself serving not only the Protestant Elizabeth but also the shamed Catholic Mary Tudor. As the murders in Yorkshire mount up and her loyalty to the Tudor sisters grows more complicated, Catherine must uncover the secret of the killer and keep her dream of a City of Ladies alive.

Knox Robinson


Men of the Cross (Battle Scars)
Charlene Newcomb

War, political intrigue and passion… heroes… friends and lovers… and the seeds for a new Robin Hood legend await you…

Two young knights’ journey to war at Richard the Lionheart’s side sweeps them from England to the Holy Land in this historical adventure set against the backdrop of the Third Crusade.

Henry de Grey leaves Southampton in high spirits, strong in his faith and passionate about the mission to take Jerusalem back from Saladin’s army. Stephan l’Aigle’s prowess on the battlefield is well known, as are his exploits in the arms of other men. He prizes duty, honour and loyalty to his king above all else. But God and the Church? Stephan has little use for either.

Henry’s convictions are challenged by loss and the harsh realities of bloody battles, unforgiving marches, and the politics of the day. Man against man. Man against the elements. Man against his own heart. Survival will depend on more than a strong sword arm.

Available in print and for Kindle on Amazon and Amazon (UK) and other Amazon sites worldwide, for Nook via Barnes and Noble, and via Smashwords in multiple formats.


This Old World
Steve Wiegenstein

This Old World begins with the end of the American Civil War. The Union has been preserved, but at a dreadful cost. The inhabitants of Daybreak, a Brook Farm-like agrarian commune in the Missouri Ozarks, tried to maintain a neutral stance but were drawn in, inevitably, as the war swept over their settlement. Now, the remnants of the community try to rebuild.

The community's founder, James Turner, enlisted in the Union Army but returns a broken man, traumatized by the horrific violence he has witnessed, including the death of his father-in-law, whom he had served as an aide-de-camp. In his absence, his wife Charlotte has been managing the community, but the war has taken its toll on her as well, making her hard and suspicious when she was once soft and idealistic.

Other former communitarians return, changed in their own ways. Charley Pettibone, an Arkansas native who fought for the South, is embittered and estranged by defeat. Michael Flynn, an Irish emigrant from a nearby settlement, discovers that his community has been scattered and blames the Southerners and their sympathizers for his misfortune. With his surviving son, five-year-old Angus, he starts anew on acreage adjoining Daybreak. And a former slave named Dathan appears from out of nowhere, his origin and motives unknown, and sets to work in the ravaged fields of Daybreak.

Marie Mercadier, a colonist who had an affair with James Turner before the war, remains in the community, and although Turner harbors feelings for her, she only wants to move onward in her life. But her sense of responsibility to her elderly father and to her daughter – her child with James Turner – keep her in Daybreak. Longing for a break with her past, she accepts the courtship of Michael Flynn, despite the fearsome intensity of Flynn's anger toward the world.

Charley falls in with the Law and Order League, a group of former guerrillas and Confederate regulars who refuse to accept defeat and who continue the war by other means, such as night raids and lynchings. Although he is quickly disillusioned by their brutality and random violence, he can't find a way to leave the group without becoming a target himself.

The lives of the characters reach a crossroad when the Law and Order League raids Daybreak, forcing each of them into a moment of moral decision in which they keep or discard their ideals of the prewar past.