Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Government bureaucracy led to a tragedy? You don’t say.

Quick synopsis: The story of NASA’s 1986 Challenger disaster.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The disaster occurred because of large rubber O-rings. The morning of the launch, the manufacturer of the solid rocket booster needed to be browbeaten by NASA into supporting the launch.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Christa McAuliffe, the teacher on the flight, was not the first non-NASA astronaut headed for space. A senator and congressman had been on previous flights.

My Take: It is one of the indelible events in recent American history. Before people said they knew exactly where they were during 9/11, they could tell you where they were when the Challenger happened. A media frenzy about sending “a normal person” into space meant most of the country was aware if not actively watching when the shuttle launch went horribly wrong.

Most people also know that the problem was a thin piece of rubber, called an O-ring, which failed to do its job and caused the explosion.

The documentary covers all of these things including bios of the shuttle crew outside of Christa McAuliffe. Additionally, we get to hear about the embarrassing attempts to cover up the real cause of the disaster which was rampant incompetence and arrogance. They are always a wonderful pair.

Verdict: This documentary is heartbreaking and covers a lot of ground. It may not contain a lot of new information for people who knew about it at the time but is great if you don’t know much about it.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • High Score (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)

Isabella by Kristen Downey

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Really depends who you are on whether you like her or not.

Quick synopsis: A complete biography of Isabella I of Castile.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yes, that Isabella. 1492, Columbus and all that.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Isabella was truly a badass woman both for good and bad. She was a warrior, built the Spanish Empire, was devout, brutal, and politically savvy. She was everything really. For history nerds, her reputation goes off a cliff because of the Inquisition. She is also the mother of Catherine of Aragon.

My Take: Isabella is one of the most amazing characters in history in my opinion. She has everything for the amazing and adventurous life people dream about. She had to take her throne by force and as a woman. This was not an enlightened world which would follow a woman blindly. She needed to be special and Isabella clearly was.

She married for love against her half-brother’s wishes. She immediately cleaned up his mess by refilling the treasury and fixing the justice system. She was a devout Catholic. Maybe a bit too Catholic.

She was the reason Columbus sailed across the ocean blue. She found powerful matches for her children. She was a force.

She also was instrumental in the Inquisition. That is what I meant by “maybe a bit too Catholic.” If you are Jewish, you are probably not a fan either. Yes, massive understatement.

This is a massive life to cover and Downey does a great job with it. She keeps the narrative flowing and also keeps all the characters straight. It can be exhausting when reading history and having to look up people because they disappear from the narrative.

Downey’s one shortfall is the Inquisition. She tries to let Isabella off the hook as being led astray by other people. However, when you look at her life as a whole, there is no way anyone led Isabella but herself.

Verdict: Great book on an amazing historical character.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
  • Michael Jones, The Black Prince: England’s Greatest Medieval Warrior
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon

American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: For once, the neighbor knew it.

Quick synopsis: The murder of Shanann Watts and her daughters by Chris Watts.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The next-door neighbor pretty much immediately knew Watts did it. It is one of the first things he eludes to when alone with police.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Keeping the historical theme of the world being populated with terrible people, Shanann was initially blamed! Hooray humanity!

My Take: Something which is becoming more discussed in the true crime genre is that much of the focus is on the perpetrator rather than the victim. Case in point, everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is, but do you know who “The Five” are? (Read Hallie Rubenhold’s book if you don’t.)

American Murder does more than an admirable job of moving away from that narrative. It helps that Shanann was very active on social media. Additionally, using the text messages she sent to show the slow unraveling of her relationship with her husband is pretty powerful. Shanann is also not presented as some wronged wife put on a pedestal. Shanann is complex (like literally everyone) and is shown as such. Sometimes she comes off as controlling or hard-headed. Rather than turn off the viewer, it actually makes her more real.

As for the girls including Shanann’s unborn child? Well, I hope Chris enjoys Hell.

Verdict: This documentary is very well done and focuses away from Chris Watts as much as possible to make this much more Shanann-centric. It will also ruin your entire day.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • The Innocence Files (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Blood & Ivy by Paul Collins

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Murrrrrderrrrrr at Haaaaaaavaaaaad.

Quick synopsis: The story of a murdered Harvard alum in 1849.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Most people don’t realize this, but surgeons often had a very hard time practicing their craft. Dead bodies for study were hard to come across and aspiring doctors often took to grave robbing.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Harvard paid professors really badly.

My Take: Even the fanciest schools in the country have their deep, dark secrets. Harvard is no exception.

In 1849, a very rich Harvard alum went missing. Since it seems all the rich people were Harvard alumni, the entire city of Boston became interested in what happened.

I don’t want to get too much into detail because while it is not hard to decipher who did it early on, there is some utility in now having all the information up front. Collins is not so much writing a mystery but chronicling the crime which sent Boston into an uproar.

Collins takes you through the whole story chronologically and makes sure to mention all the very important Harvard men you’ve heard about in English class. It’s a breezy read and has a couple of surprising twists.

Verdict: A great book if you like historical true crime. It is not a whodunnit but is a great chronicle of the crime and an easy read.

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

Podcast Review: The Dream Season 1

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Prepare for a different perspective of a lot of people in your Facebook feed.

Quick synopsis: A look into what multi-level marketing (MLM) is and why it can literally ruin people’s lives.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You have seen MLMs all over the place. Most likely, you’ve seen a friend doing a video on Facebook trying to sell their wares. Most likely, they are selling for an MLM.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Here is a non-exhaustive list of MLMs: Advocare, Beachbody, LuLaRoe, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef…the list goes on.

My Take: An MLM is not a pyramid scheme. Why do I say that? It’s not because it doesn’t look a hell of a lot like one, but mostly because I don’t want to get sued.

It can be very dicey trying to suss out what an MLM actually is and explain why it is so dangerous and misleading. This podcast slowly takes you through why the structure of an MLM (hint: it looks like a pyramid) is unsustainable for the vast majority of people who are part of it. The numbers are staggering and the way it works is worrisome to say the least.

The most effective episodes are when one of the podcast staff actually joins an MLM and talks through the process. This podcast never looks down on the people who get caught up in MLMs and even shows just how easy it is to buy into what they are selling. The podcast staffer talks about how she has an ulterior motive but still gets caught up in the hard sell.

Everyone should listen to this podcast.

Verdict: This is an important podcast because people very hard-working people are getting ripped off on a daily basis.

If You Liked This Try:

  • A Killing on the Cape
  • The Gateway
  • Uncover Season 1: Escaping NXIVM

Diamonds, Gold, and War by Martin Meredith

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Boer, what’s it good for?

Quick synopsis: The story of how South Africa went from a backwater British colony to one of the most sought-after prizes on earth. (Spoiler alert: It’s in the title, obviously.)

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Boer Wars have nothing to do with pigs.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Winston Churchill was a prisoner of war during the Second Boer War and escaped.

My Take: So what the hell is a Boer? I’ll tell you.

When European nations started sailing around Africa to get to Southeast Asia, they realized they needed a place to stop on the way. South Africa seemed like the perfect spot. Over a whole bunch of decades, white Europeans from Holland, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. populated the area of South Africa for trade. It was a nice spot and basically only served as a stopping off point and not much else.

Until in 1871, diamonds were found. A lot of them. Fifteen years later, gold was found. A lot of it. You can guess what happened when people realized how much money could be made by digging. Just like anywhere else, people began to clash, kill each other, and started taking over swaths of land. Wars broke out and a lot of people were caught in the middle.

Meredith fills in all of the details of the events above in a great narrative. He focuses on some key players, but he adeptly gives the reader vivid visions of what it was like to be sent into one of these mines or to be in the middle of a pitched battle. It covers a lot of ground, so if you are don’t care about the topic at all it may be too much for a non-nerd.

Verdict: This is an enormous piece of work which covers an amazing amount of time and events. It should not be nearly as riveting as it is. Great book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Neil Thornton, Rorke’s Drift
  • Mike Snook, Like Wolves on the Fold
  • Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War

Home Game (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sports are just like people, the weirder the better.

Quick synopsis: A TV series which identifies fun and weird sports from across the globe.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Kyrgyzstan has a sport where the ball is a dead goat. Yes, you read that correctly.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Florence has a sport that is part MMA, part rugby. It has been going on for 500 years.

My Take: This history nerd also loves sports. This show gives you some awesome ones you never heard of.

There are 8 episodes which go around the globe to find some pretty wild ones. The show also explains the origins of each of the sports which can go back hundreds of years. Even if you hate sports, there is some really interesting background information.

If you hate sports or can’t understand why some people would dedicate their lives and health to it then you probably won’t like it. If you do, and if you like weird stuff then you will enjoy the hell out of these.

Verdict: If you like sports at all then this is for you. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • (Un)well
  • High Score
  • The Tiger King

Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Popes behaving badly.

Quick synopsis: It’s about the Pope. All of them.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Pope Stephen VI put Pope Formosus on trial. The catch? Formosus was dead for 7 months. They exhumed him and had him sit there during the trial. It’s called the Cadaver Synod for hilariously obvious reasons.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You would think an antipope would be a rare occurrence. An antipope is someone who claimed to be the pope and had followers but was not the “real” pope. There was probably at least 30 or so. My favorite? Innocent III. Obviously, you weren’t, bro.

My Take: John Julius Norwich was a very revered historian before his death in 2018. I had never heard of him before reading this book. When I finished it, I realized how great he was with massive pieces of history.

There are many ways to go wrong when taking on something as massive as the papacy. There is a lot of material obviously, but also uncountable situations where your personal feelings can sneak it. The popes were not all saints.

Norwich pulls this off (and as an Englishman, no less!). He sticks to the history and never editorializes and spends what I consider the right amount of time on each pope based on their importance. Norwich’s own introduction greatly downplays his skills as he makes this interesting but informative throughout.

The papacy is an amazing story with its fair share of heroism and villainy. Norwich gives you all of it and you don’t need to be a Catholic to enjoy this.

Verdict: The best book on the subject. May not be “fun” enough for non-history folks but comes close. A must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio
  • Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics

High Score (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: One word – Nerdgasm.

Quick synopsis: A documentary which illuminates us all on how video games came to be.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The aliens in Space Invaders are actually sea creatures set to pixilation. Go look. I’ll wait.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nintendo wasn’t a video game company originally. It was founded in 1889 to make playing cards.

My Take: (Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

A lot of entertainment options nowadays try to bring you back to old time periods. I find most are very unsuccessful in this endeavor. They will lean too heavy into a time, like the 80s, and overwhelm you with too many details that assault your senses and ultimately end up seeming forced.

Then there is High Score. During the episodes, there will be a cut in between shots with pixilated graphics and I was transported every damn time. Whoever made this knew what 8-year-old me wanted to see and they delivered. There is a ton of information you never knew about behind the scenes.

The battle between Nintendo and Sega, the move to 3-D, multiplayer, and how arcades came and went are all covered. The show never spends to long on any one thing and adds a lot of interesting information along the way.

Please excuse me, I’m going to figure out how to go play The Legend of Zelda.

Verdict: I was transported back to playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo. If you ever played video games, go watch this. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley