God’s Traitors by Jessie Childs

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: (Looks toward England. Raises middle finger.)

Quick synopsis: Another story about how England is the devil. This time, it focuses on the Catholic Vaux family in Elizabethan England.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: There were places built into homes to hide clergy during the time of Catholic persecution. They were called a “priest hole.” Yeah, I know.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: To this day, you still cannot be Catholic and King of England. We don’t want it anyway.

My Take: The set-up for this book is rife with opportunity for a thriller. Families hiding their faith and secreting away priests while being hunted.

This book does tackle that but in a more scholastic way. It focuses on the Vaux family during the time where it was illegal to be Catholic in England. Yes, that was a long time. Yes, I am still salty about it. Being of Irish heritage as well does not help. Some may say, “But Brendan, the Catholic Church killed a lot of people back then,” and I would say, “Well, I’m not reviewing a book about that right now so shut up, jerk.”

I digress. Jessie Childs book is well researched and eminently readable. However, it is a failure of mine that I expected something more up-tempo. There are many close calls which are documented but they do not make up the bulk of the narrative. This is a great book if your expectations are set properly.

The title is badass, though.

Verdict: This is a well-done book, but it is written for history nerds and not thriller fans.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Catholicism_in_the_United_Kingdom

Blood Royal by Eric Jager

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I wonder how many less murders we would have if people kept it in their pants?

Quick synopsis: The murder of the Duke of Orleans, Louis I, in 1407.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This murder wasn’t very straightforward because a lot of people wanted to kill Louis. Mostly because he had a penchant for sleeping with people’s wives.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Oh, one of those wives he might have been sleeping with? His brother’s wife, Queen Isabeau.

My Take: Historical true crime is always an interesting subject. However, Blood Royal is the first book that highlighted something which is common sense, but you don’t think about.

Medieval cities used to get really dark at night. There is no light, and you can’t have a fire going because you would easily burn down all of the buildings which were made primarily of wood. Finally, there is no police force as we know it today. If you went out after dark, you probably wouldn’t even see your murderer coming. On top of that, no one would be investigating in any meaningful way.

With that backdrop, here comes the story of the king’s brother being murdered after leaving from seeing the queen. At night. Louis had a lot of lovers and it made for a lot of potential killers.

The chief of police, Guillaume de Tignonville, is tasked with finding the murderer. Jager shows just how far from today’s methods 1407 was and yet, Tignonville ends up being pretty effective considering the circumstances. The ending is pretty straightforward but not without drama.

Verdict: A really fun book. If you like historical true crime, then this is right up your alley.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jager, The Last Duel
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Joel Harrington, The Faithful Executioner
  • Holly Tucker, City of Light, City of Poison

Mystery on the Isle of Shoals by J. Dennis Robinson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s actually not a mystery who did it, but people like conspiracies.

Quick synopsis: The murder of Karen and Anethe Christensen on the isolated Smuttynose Island in 1873.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Smuttynose Island got its name from sailors who felt the seaweed on the island made it look like a “smutty nose.” It has no sexual connotation, you perverts.

Oh, Blackbeard had his honeymoon there.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Celia Thaxter, a famous poet of the 1800s, lived on the Island of Shoals off and on throughout her life and wrote “A Memorable Murder” about the murders.

My Take: It’s better when you take your time.

Robinson’s book is very evenly paced but he also takes his time to make the reader understand the setting of the Isle of Shoals. The prologue takes up much more room than usual, but I personally believe it makes the murder and subsequent events more vivid. The Isle of Shoals has a rich history which needs to be explained and Robinson takes the time to do that.

The murder is very straightforward for the most part but still very compelling to read. The twist is actually the lack of a twist. People to this day think something else happened. Read and make the decision for yourself.

Verdict: I loved it. It does not move as fast as most true crime novels but if you care about understanding a setting, then this is the book for you.

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

Maniac by Harold Schechter

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Always pay attention to people buying a lot of explosives.

Quick synopsis: The Bath School disaster in 1927. Andrew Kehoe bombed the local Michigan grade school out of revenge for perceived slights and holy hell he didn’t stop there.

Fun Fact for Non-History People Will Like: This is still the worst school massacre in U.S. history even though most of us never heard of it before.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Kehoe blamed the school for his inability to pay off his debts. It was estimated at his death that he could have sold his property and paid everything off.

My Take: I don’t necessarily “enjoy” true crime, per se. I appreciate a well written story and when it helps the reader understand a little more about human nature than just recounting a story.

Schechter does two things. He slowly shows the deterioration of Andrew Kehoe including documenting the perceived slights which led him to do what he did. Even with this detailed walk-through, the ending is shocking. Kehoe didn’t just set a bomb at a school. He enacted a multi-step plan of revenge that spared no one except through good luck.

The other theme which Schechter tackles intermittently, but very effectively, is why most people have no knowledge of the Bath School disaster even with how amazingly sad it was. I won’t spoil it.

You are not going to feel good at the end of this book, but there is no way to tell this story.

Verdict: A brutal read but a vivid account of a psycho and how he came to do what he did. A must read for true crime readers.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar
  • Rich Cohen, The Last Pirate of New York

Grant by Ron Chernow

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: When is Lin-Manuel Miranda going to make a musical out of this?

Quick synopsis: A (very) in depth biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Battle of Shiloh had more casualties than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Gettysburg would more than double that.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Grant’s groomsmen at his wedding were James Longstreet, Cadmus Wilcox, and Bernard Pratte. All of them would later surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

My Take: Ulysses S. Grant (not his real name, actually) is one of those historical figures who can be lionized or vilified using bare facts. He made it quite easy, actually.

Ulysses S. Grant was a master of the battlefield and is recognized by many military luminaries as a genius.

Ulysses S. Grant was hilariously bad at business ventures and choosing who to trust under those circumstances.

Where Chernow is a master is in supporting his conclusions. The Pulitzer Prize winning Grant by William S. McFeely is a horrible book which paints Grant a villain using pop psychology and sparsely supported conjecture. Chernow backs up everything he says with primary sources, takes the good with the bad, and uses the opinions of people relative to their times. The last part is very important. Many of Grant’s detractors had strong reasons to try and bring him down, whether because they lost to him on the battlefield (hello Bobby E. Lee!) or refused to bend to his will in politics.

However, Chernow does not allow Grant off easy for his shortcomings which were readily apparent. Grant was extremely naïve in multiple areas and they marred much of his legacy. He is rated lowly as a president, but Chernow resurrects his legacy as the archenemy of the KKK. Chernow also points out that much of the scandals which erupted under Grant didn’t actually start with him. Grant tried to work within the system he inherited and the fact no one ever truly accused him of being crooked himself is testament to that. Even still, Washington he was not.

Verdict: If you are a history nerd, everything Chernow writes is required reading. If you are new to the genre, 900 pages is a bit intimidating, but worth it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella
  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman

Grant by William S. McFeely

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book is one of the reasons to hate the 80s.

Quick synopsis: A terrible biography of U.S. Grant.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This terrible book won the Pulitzer Prize. It annoys me to no end.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book is an example of an author having an axe to grind for no apparent reason.

My Take: This book absolutely enrages me.

U.S. Grant is one of the most complex characters in American history. He was a drunk, a hero, an amazing judge of character in military matters, but a horrible judge of character in business matters. He was gifted a slave, whom he freed while broke when he could have sold him. He was madly in love with his wife at a time when that wasn’t always the case.

The first person who would tell you Grant was an extremely flawed human would be Grant. And he did, in his own autobiography.

Then you have this hatchet job by William S. McFeely which somehow won the Pulitzer Prize. It is full of amateur pop psychology. He makes wild accusations about Grant based on nothing, as far as I can tell, because he never explains why he feels that way.

Contrast that with Ron Chernow who takes great pains to explain his point of view. When he says George Washington had a complex relationship with his mother, he supports it by referencing letters between the two and placing them in historical context.

Don’t read this book. Awards don’t guarantee quality.

Verdict: Read anything below. For the love of God, please. Just not this.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jamie Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman
  • Ron Chernow, Grant
  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman

Triangle by David Von Drehle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why we have fire safety requirements.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It is one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the US and one of the main reasons for a lot of major reforms.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: 146 people died during the fire. One of the main reasons was because one of the owners locked the doors to keep everyone in. He even did it AGAIN after the fire.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the biggest shifts politically was the view of Tammany Hall. Long seen as merely a corrupt political contraption (they were), their leaders took on the cause of reform based partly on the Triangle Fire.

My Take: The book is great; the event was horrific.

The factory conditions were beyond belief. The factory was on three separate floors which did not have any way to quickly communicate (there was a phone by it didn’t have a way to contact one of the floors). There was no real fire prevention. Doors were locked to keep the workers from sneaking out. There was a fire escape, but it was put in because the owners refused to put in a third stairwell in the building.

The fire started. The foreman with the keys ran out without unlocking the doors. The fire escape collapsed. The 9th floor had no idea what was happening. People started jumping from the windows. Yes, shades of 9/11.

This book is two different stories. The first is the fire as a disaster story. The second is what happened after which is partially heartening, but also with a lot of frustrations and lack of justice.

Read it.

Verdict: Great book and very important in understanding a major event in labor reform.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess, William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Kate Moore, The Radium Girls

The Movies That Made Us: Season 1 (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: 12-year-old Brendan was so psyched for this!

Quick synopsis: Mini-documentaries on some of your favorite movies…and Dirty Dancing (I kid, ladies).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Home Alone was nearly cancelled when it almost completely finished.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Dan Aykroyd’s family is really into the occult and that’s how we got Ghostbusters.

My Take: I don’t care too much about movie making. I like to just see what gets put up on the screen and just enjoy the ride. I know some people want to see the artistry and the camera angles and what not, but I like to see stuff blow up without thinking too hard. Oh, and really fancy dramas…those too.

However, it was really hard not to love this series of documentaries. I even watched the Dirty Dancing one! No, I didn’t have the time of my life, shut up. It was good though.

These documentaries take you through the whole process of the four movies they cover. Literally, from who wrote it (and often rewrote it) all the way through to when people thought the movies would bomb. As you may guess, these movies are in this show because they didn’t.

These are more than just a nostalgia trip. Go ahead and watch.

Verdict: Go ahead. You’ll have a great time.

If You Liked This Try:

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

Last Stands by Michael Walsh

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book should have been titled “Get Off My Lawn!”

Quick synopsis: This is a philosophy book masquerading as a look at famous last stands in history.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: None of those in this book!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: None of these, either!

My Take: This book is one of the reasons I have this site.

As of today, Last Stands has a 4.7 out of 5 stars review on Amazon from 278 ratings. It is listed as a military history book. It is not.

I won’t get into the politics of this book, and let’s be clear, this is a book about our current politics. I hate discussing politics because it inevitably leads to arguments which have no end. I am not naïve enough to think books don’t inherently require a political tilt, but that is why there is a VERY important thing to have in any history book: a bibliography. Guess what this book does not have?

A bibliography is the way an author presents the real work of a book by documenting their research. If they say something you heartily disagree with, you can go back to primary or secondary sources to check where it came from. Maybe it changes your mind, maybe it doesn’t. Many historians think George Custer was a dashing figure undone by outside forces. I think his arrogance lead to the death of him and his soldiers. Both can be right, and both can be supported by primary sources. Custer died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This is historical fact. Why it happened is up to an interpretation by the presenter and it is their job to prove their viewpoint as much as is possible.

Walsh does none of that.

Also, the actual “last stands” in this book take up shockingly little page count. Walsh actually expects you to know more about them than he presents.

And now I will do my solemn duty and point you to actual history books about the battles…. mentioned?… in this book. All of them have bibliographies.

Verdict: Uh, if you like QAnon then you’d probably like this.

Here are books on actual last stands:

  • Custer’s Last Stand – The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift – Like Wolves on the Fold by Mike Snook and Rorke’s Drift: A New Perspective by Neil Thornton
  • The Battle of Chosin Reservoir – On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides

The Ripper (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Apparently, it’s not a big deal to murder prostitutes in England.

Quick synopsis: A documentary on Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered at least 13 women.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Sutcliffe was interviewed 9 times by the police but was only apprehended when he was caught with a hooker, phony license plates, and a kill kit nearby.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Sutcliffe was able to murder 3 more women and attack 2 others after a man named John Humble sent hoax letters and a recording to police which sent them in the wrong direction.

My Take: It is hard to find a more bungled investigation than this one.

Peter Sutcliffe killed and attacked women over a period of five years from 1975-1980. Except, when the investigation was reviewed years later, he was on police radar as early as 1969. He was quiet and unassuming but was not invisible to law enforcement. However, he might as well have been with the way the police mucked it all up.

The series is good but does start to drag and then feels rather rushed at the end. It is 4 episodes long and Sutcliffe and the investigation fallout doesn’t appear until episode 4. There is a clear attempt by the documentary to highlight how badly misogyny was at the heart of the police incompetence. I was very unconvinced until I did my own research. As a history nerd, additional research can be very enlightening. However, if you bring something up in your documentary, and there is ample evidence to prove it, you need to do a much better job than this did.

If you love true crime, you will like this. It does a great job explaining and showing how much the Ripper out England in a constant state of fear when the sun went down. It is not the best out there, though.

Verdict: This series is good, but it does not seem to be complete and has an extremely rushed ending.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • Night Stalker (Netflix)