Last Man Off by Matt Lewis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I didn’t join the navy.

Quick synopsis: First person retelling of the sinking of the Sudur Havid, a fishing boat which sank near Antarctica.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When the Sudur Havid went fishing they put about 15,000 hooks in the water at one time.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Same fact as above. That’s a lot of hooks!

My Take: This is a first-person retelling by Matt Lewis who was aboard the Sudur Havid when it sank. He admits he needed to reach out to the other survivors to fill in a lot of blanks and freely acknowledges not everyone agreed on every point which is refreshing more than concerning. Lewis tells a brisk story, giving very little introduction to both the boat and the people. In a way, it feels very much like he describes how he met everyone. Quick introduction and off to work. Before you know it, the boat is going down and the fight for survival begins.

Lewis is especially effective when describing the situation in the life rafts after the abandon ship (spoiler alert: it’s really cold). As a self-professed lover of the cold, his descriptions of South Georgia and the cold waters had me running for an extra blanket. Lewis is very often at the forefront of leadership when the ship goes down but also readily admits his own failures throughout the incident which lends credence to his reliability.

Verdict: This is a great book told from the first-person point of view. If you don’t care about survival stories, then there is noting in the book for you. It’s short, quick, to the point, and then ends.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Brian Murphy, Adrift
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master

Under a Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well I’m certainly going to be nice to Forest Rangers after reading this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1894 firestorm in Hinckley, Minnesota which burned 350,000 acres in 5 hours and killed over 400 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Think it’s safe to jump in a well if you see a fire coming? You would be wrong. The fire will suck out all the oxygen and asphyxiate you. Some people in Hinckley found out the hard way.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The fire was so strong it began to make its own weather including fire tornados. Yes, you read that correctly.

My Take: I had never heard of the Great Hinckley Fire. This is one of those history books that is screaming for a movie. The setup is right out of a hacky screenplay. Quiet logging town out in the center of the country. Wholesome people just doing what they can to make ends meet.

The logging town detail is crucial. We know now that the way logging was done in the 1800s created the perfect storm for a vicious fire to wipe out entire towns. In this case, that is exactly what happened.

Brown’s book gives you everything to truly feel everything that happens in the book. The sense of dread as the fire moves towards town. The panic as people begin to realize what they are up against. Most importantly, Brown highlights the many heroes who do absolutely incredible things under the worst of circumstances. This includes a train engineer who nearly dies holding the train as long as possible in order to save the maximum amount of people.

Everyone should have heard this story and I don’t know many people who have.

Verdict: An amazing book about a disaster you’ve probably never heard of before. It reads like a movie.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Timothy Egan, The Big Burn
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze

God, War, and Providence by James Warren

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Massholes.

Quick synopsis: A look at how Roger Williams and Rhode Island came to be and also how the other colonies (especially Massachusetts, they come off looking really bad) screwed over their Indian neighbors and tried to destroy Rhode Island.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When an Indian party set fire to most of Providence, including his own house, Roger Williams walked out of the house and scolded the Indians doing it. Badass.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Oh man, if you hate the Boston Red Sox as much as I do, this book goes a long way to piling on the great state of Massachusetts from the beginning. (For the record, still love you Cape Cod.) Warren thoroughly chronicles how Massachusetts insidiously went after Williams, Rhode Island, and their Indian neighbors.

My Take: James Warren lives in Rhode Island. It certainly goes far in explaining why this book is a hit job on Massachusetts. Warren does not hold back! However, it does help that he has all the evidence to back it up.

Warren tries to cover a lot of ground in his book. It is part biography of Roger Williams, part chronicle of the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War, and the founding of Rhode Island. Warren is only partially successful mainly because any three of these subjects deserves its own lengthy book. Roger Williams alone is fascinating as truly being a precursor to the America we know now.

Ultimately, if you know the time period pretty well, then this book will leave you wanting more but in a good way. I wanted Warren to spend a lot more time on his subjects than he did. If you are just beginning to learn about the time period, then this is a fantastic book to get your feet wet. Warren has a sly sense of humor which adds a nice touch to the endeavor.

Verdict: Colonial history nerds may not be completely satisfied, but everyone else will love it and probably start buying other books which expound upon everything in the book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
  • Richard Archer, As if an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Prohibition was so stupid.

Quick synopsis: The story of George Remus, a famous bootlegger who became famous for something else afterwards.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George Remus was the “king of the bootleggers” and at one point owned one seventh of the bonded liquor in America.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: George Remus named his daughter Romola. What a dork. If you don’t get it, ask a friend versed in Roman history.

My Take: Prohibition was one of the dumbest things America ever did. First is slavery, second is Prohibition. Third is probably country music. Fight me.

Anyway, George Remus was a very successful attorney. He was the jazz age version of the overly effusive guest lawyers you would see on Law & Order. He wailed, he cried, he trashed around the courtroom. He got bored and Prohibition came along. He decided to become a bootlegger and damnit if he wasn’t really good at it!

Of course, as with any truly successful kingpin, he got caught. The story then focuses on his wife and a few other people whom I won’t spoil. No one in the story is particularly heroic. This is more a “Breaking Bad” kind of story.

It’s a really easy read and a great start if you want to dip your toe into historical true crime.

Verdict: A really breezy read although you won’t find many heroes in this story. Read it if you love true crime or the time period.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: These people make the Tiger King look downright classy.

Quick synopsis: A short history of the people of Pitcairn Island with a specific focus on the sexual assault trials of 2004. It is all really gross.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The people of Pitcairn Island are the descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty. If you are unfamiliar with the mutiny on the Bounty then honestly, come on. Fine, I’ll give you the rundown in the “My Take” section but damnit you need to read more.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The hardest part of a trial is usually what the lawyers have to do to prepare. When it’s on Pitcairn Island then it’s a whole different set of challenges. Law and order basically didn’t exist. The United Kingdom had no court system to oversee a trial on Pitcairn because they left the island to its own devices. They didn’t even have a reliable way to GET ON the island.

My Take: Welcome to one of the craziest places on earth. In 1789, mutineers led by Fletcher Christian on a British ship named the Bounty sent their captain, William Bligh, on a small boat with the rest of the crew out into the ocean to fend for themselves. Two absolutely insane things then happened. Bligh captained his open boat and the survivors 4,000 damn miles to safety. Let that sink in. Yes, pun intended.

The second crazy thing? Christian and 8 other mutineers (after a bunch of kidnapping and murder, long story) ended up settling on Pitcairn Island with a bunch of kidnapped indigenous people. Good news though, almost all of the mutineers ended up killing each other so all is well that ends well, right? I will not point out the irony of the main psycho being named Christian. Oh, I guess I did.

Nope. Lost Paradise focuses on what happens when a society is left to its own devices with no oversight. Might be hard to be a libertarian after reading this. The people on Pitcairn currently come from four families dating back to the mutineers. In 2004, a trial was held due to the repeated sexual assaults on the island which were treated for years with a collective shrug. It wasn’t until the British government decided to actually do something that trials were held. Don’t hold out for a happy ending.

Verdict: It’s unbelievable and infuriating but a great read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Diana Preston, Paradise in Chains
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals

The Last Duel by Eric Jager

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why we have lawyers.

Quick synopsis: The story of the last trial by combat in France in 1386.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are set to write and act in the movie version of this book. That is all the pandering I will do for the rest of the post.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: It was really hard to kill a fully suited up knight! Turns out unless you have excellent aim, most of the weapons in 1386 would bounce right off.

My Take: Trial by combat really was a thing. And it was a very one-sided affair if you lost. Here’s how it worked:

  1. Crime is committed or alleged to be committed.
  2. Wronged party calls for a trial by combat.
  3. Accuser and accused suit up in a fight to the death.
    1. If accuser wins, then the accused is obviously guilty.
    1. If accused wins, obviously the accuser was a liar.
  4. Fun wrinkle, if you submitted before being killed, then you’d be executed anyway.

Pretty straight forward, right? Here’s the story of this dual to add some flavor. A knight was accused of raping another knight’s wife. Accuser calls for trial by combat. The big danger here was that is the accuser lost or quit, then his wife would also be executed for lying.

So, the next time you say you hate lawyers, just remember what it would be like if we didn’t have them at all.

Verdict: A really great book for history nerds. It may get too into the weeds for a non-nerd but hey, that’s what the movie is for. (Reminder: The book is always better.)

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Joel Harrington, The Faithful Executioner

Brilliant Beacons by Eric Jay Dolan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I have nothing snarky for this one. Lighthouses are awesome.

Quick synopsis: A comprehensive history of the American lighthouse.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: A Fresnel lens can be seen 20 miles out to sea.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: American lighthouses were way behind the times for a long while. While Europe improved their lights and lenses, American lighthouses were decades behind their competitors. 

My Take: I should start off by saying that I love everything about lighthouses so maybe I am biased. I am not ashamed to say so.

Dolan does a great job of giving you everything a lighthouse fanatic would need. He gets into the science, the history, the famous stories, and ones you’ve never heard of. He doesn’t get too bogged down in any specific details and by the end you feel like you got all the information you needed.

I found the science part to be more interesting than I expected. And as everyone knows, the elimination of the lighthouse keeper position is a sad development at the end. Dolan handles this well and really gets the emotion out of you. Or maybe I am a big baby. I dunno.

Read it and have fun!

Verdict: If you care about lighthouses even a little bit then this book is the one for you.

If You Liked This Try:

  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm
  • Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl
  • Kate Moore, The Radium Girls

The Phantom Killer by James Presley

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Another win for the press with cool serial killer names.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story from 1946. The Phantom Killer murdered 5 people and assaulted 3 more in Texarkana, Texas.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Texas Rangers were so frazzled by this guy that they arrested almost 400 suspects. Not questioned, people. Arrested. I believe this is the police definition of “flailing.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We actually probably know who the Phantom Killer was. The guy even spent years in jail. The evidence is damning but an official case was never hung on the suspect.

My Take: This is why I love good historical true crime. If you aren’t from Texarkana, Texas then you’ve probably never heard of the Phantom Killer. The city was so scared of this guy that gun stores ran out of weapons to sell. In Texas. We all realize how amazing a statement that is, right?

The killer focused on couples not unlike the Son of Sam would later on. He was amazingly adept at not leaving much of a trace at crimes scenes and his reign of terror only lasted about 3 months. Presley does a great job here making the dread build as the crimes continue. He also makes you feel the terror as people huddled in their houses hoping not to become the next victims.

I’d be remiss not to point out that Presley also presents a crime scene in an incredibly detailed manner. This all happened in 1946 but Presley pieces together the facts to create a great visual of each crime scene through his prose.

Verdict: This is really good historical true crime. Read it!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

A Dune Adrift by Marq De Villiers and Sheila Hirtle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The island is literally moving as we speak.

Quick synopsis: The history of Sable Island off the coast of Canada. Yes, it is more interesting than it sounds!

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Sable Island is home to at least 350 shipwrecks. It’s also home to 500 feral horses who descended from the first batch of horses dropped off in 1737.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Sable Island is moving. Because of where it lays in the Atlantic Ocean, the currents are currently pulling sand from the east side and depositing sand on the west side. Sable Island is slowly moving west. Yes, it’s a sandbar but shush.

My Take: I am from the east coast of North America and I had never heard of Sable Island until I read this book. I’m not sure how because it is pretty damn interesting.

Sable Island is a sandbar which is completely shaped by its location. Because it exists near the drop off of a continental shelf, it is constantly moving as sand is pulled from one side while the other side has sand deposited. It is also far north in the Atlantic and has frequent fog. It is just under 27 miles long but no more than ¾ of a mile wide. It also happens to be in the middle of a frequented shipping lane used for centuries.

What do you get when you add all that up? At least 350 shipwrecks in recorded history and probably more. Sable Island is one of the most dangerous things in the Atlantic Ocean. If you don’t know where it is then you may end up wrecked on it.

The book covers way more than just geography and shipwrecks. It’s worth checking out.

Verdict: I never thought I’d say it, but I really enjoyed reading about a physical landmass. Who knew?!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Kalee Thompson, Deadliest Sea